UPDATE: An Elephant In The Woods can exclusively report that ALL returning UChicago students will be given a letter similar to the one the Class of 2020 received. Read more about it here.
Student protesters around the country have shut down countless events over the years, and the University of Chicago was sadly no exception to this trend. At least 308 speakers have been cancelled before speaking or shut down in the middle of their speeches since 2000 for an incredibly wide variety of reasons. The University of Chicago is known as a beacon of academic freedom that schools such as Princeton, Purdue, and others have looked to when crafting their own statements on the importance of free speech.
This upcoming academic year will be the 50th anniversary of the Kalven Report, which was written during the Vietnam War to affirm the importance of a university that does not silence voices. More recently, University of Chicago Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone released his Stone Report which has become the gold standard for speech codes around the country, with at least 11 campuses adopting similar codes.
In 2016 alone, 21 speakers were prevented from sharing their thoughts on campuses, and two of those happened at the University of Chicago, one of which I attended. The first occurred when Chicago State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was invited by campus’s Institute of Politics (which is run by none other than David Axelrod, no one’s idea of a conservative) to speak in a series that featured the candidates for Chicago’s State’s Attorney. Alvarez had the final date to speak at an event that was “free and open to the public.” However, seven minutes into her speech, several protesters took over the event for about ten minutes and Alvarez left the premises, preventing anyone from hearing what she had to say (or to ask her questions about her record, which has left much to be desired).
A small group of protesters, some of whom were openly supportive of another candidate, shouted her down. The great irony is that, through their actions, they ensured no one would get the chance to ask Ms. Alvarez challenging questions. One of the ugly turns in the public discourse these days is coarseness and intolerance—the notion that we should not simply disagree with the people with whom we have differences, but we should deny them the right to speak. The IOP was created, in part, to be a safe place where people of differing views, parties, and backgrounds could air their ideas and make their cases, and grapple with provocative questions. This commitment to free and open debate is not only consistent with a university setting, but also with a healthy, functioning democracy.
At another point in the year, Palestinian Human Rights activist Bassem Eid was shut down and his life threatened by members of Students for Justice in Palestine. (Our chapter of SJP openly supports and raises money for a convicted murderer of college students; for more on that, read here.). The campus Dean on Call responded by shutting down the entire event, rather than evicting the protesters who shouted that they would blow up Eid’s car. Eid’s crime was that he was not sufficiently anti-Israel for these protesters, one of whom shouted that he would follow Eid to future events planned in Chicago.
On Israel’s Independence Day, members of SJP shut down students trying to speak about their ties to Israel by shouting into a megaphone, and the same Dean on Call who had shut down the Eid event threatened to close down the tent for Yom Ha’Atzmaut instead of telling the protesters that they were not allowed to shut students down. These antics from SJP are to be expected. It was recently revealed that on a national level, SJP “collects data on where Jewish students live on US campuses,” so this is far from surprising behavior. In fact, recent congressional testimony revealed the terrorist network that funds many of the activities of SJP groups around the country.
A few weeks later, I introduced a resolution to the General Assembly of the University of Chicago, which is composed of the student governments of The College and the Graduate Divisions.
The Maroon covered how unbelievably insane this meeting was in quite a lot of detail:
Last night, Student Government’s (SG) General Assembly voted to indefinitely table a resolution reaffirming the University’s commitment to free expression. Specifically, it referred to recent instances of speakers interrupted by protesters, including Anita Alvarez and Bassem Eid.
Following extensive debate, General Assembly, which is comprised of the College Council (CC) and Graduate Council (GC), first voted on a motion to reject the resolution. Eight students voted in favor of rejection, 10 voted against rejection, and eight abstained. In response, multiple members introduced a motion to table the resolution indefinitely, and only six members voted against the second motion allowing the tabling to pass.
The resolution was proposed by second-year Matthew Foldi. This resolution calls on the University administration to condemn any student who “obstructs or disrupts” free speech, including making threats to speakers on campus, and to enforce such condemnation. It cited the University’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression and alluded to two campus events disrupted by student protesters earlier this year.
In his presentation to the General Assembly, Foldi explained that he wrote the resolution in response to February events with Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez and Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and critic of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. Both events ended early after student protesters drowned out the speakers.
Foldi added that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that advocates for free speech on college campuses, awarded the University its highest rating for protection of free speech earlier this year.
“In 2016 alone…18 speakers have been shut down or uninvited from college campuses, and two of those events are the ones stressed by this resolution,” he said. “We are looked upon as an example by other institutions who adopt our speech policies and as such I think it’s important to affirm the importance of free inquiry at the University of Chicago.” 136 people signed the resolution, including 52 professors and Ph.D. students from a wide range of departments and 83 undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni.
Foldi also co-sponsored two resolutions last week calling on the University to divest from China and the investment RSO Blue Chips to divest from Israeli companies listed in CC’s April 12 resolution.
In debating the resolution, several General Assembly members referenced the event with Anita Alvarez, who has been widely criticized for her office’s role in delaying the release of a video of a Chicago Police Department officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
“I do think that at a university, a variety of viewpoints are supposed to be put in front of us,” said Class of 2018 CC Representative Calvin Cottrell. “I was going to show up [to the Alvarez event] and ask very tough questions about what had happened in her office and I think many people were denied the opportunity to ask those questions.”
Class of 2018 Representative Cosmo Albrecht disagreed. “I don’t think we should use this idea of elected officials being…banned from speaking as evidence that free speech is under attack,” he said. “If you’re an elected official you should be willing to face the consequences of your actions…. I think these protests are a necessary part of a democracy.”
SG President Tyler Kissinger explained that while he does not usually speak on these issues, he urged General Assembly members to vote against the resolution. “As a public official it is my obligation not to run out of the room. I was at the Anita Alvarez event, an event with someone whose office has consistently refused to meet with black and Latino communities that her office has over-policed and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “I think it is well within the rights of people to protest events particularly for public officials…and I urge a no vote.”
After voting against the motion to reject the resolution, multiple SG members motioned to table the resolution indefinitely. Following the passage of this motion, Class of 2016 Representative Mark Sands made a point of order, saying, “postponing indefinitely is the lowest priority motion and I had another motion so it should’ve been voted on first.” In response, Kissinger said, “I didn’t hear the motion,” and adjourned the meeting.
The indefinite tabling of the resolution means that the resolution may be brought up for discussion in future academic quarters.
There were a few other lowlights of this presentation, which included a graduate representative saying that he believes that it is the role of students to shut down events that are too controversial. At a different point, I had to explain to one of the undergraduate representatives why it is a bad thing that two of the 21 events that had been shut down were on our campus.
In the aftermath of this meeting, I met with administration officials to discuss further steps to take to ensure that the student body of the University of Chicago understands the values of the university that it attends.
In addition to these events on the University of Chicago’s campus, earlier this year, DePaul University in Chicago descended into chaos when its chapter of College Republicans invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, and Donald Trump’s rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago was shut down before it even started. I was at both the Milo and Trump events, and both were absolutely insane. I have problems with both Milo and Trump, but I was also legitimately interested in hearing what they had to say, which was denied to me when both of their events were cancelled entirely. The events chronicled in detail are only the ones that I have first or second-hand knowledge of (Jason Riley has an excellent first person account of what it is like to be disinvited as a campus speaker here)!
I am pleased to report that the incoming class of 2020 all received a letter in the mail from Dean of Students Jay Ellison that unequivocally states:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because the topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
In addition to this letter, students also received a book by the Dean of the College, John Boyer, entitled Academic Freedom and the Modern University (which can be read online here). The book details the importance the University has placed on free speech since its founding, chronicling the contributions of University presidents such as William Rainey Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and more.
Bravo to the University of Chicago for standing up for its stated values of the power of inquiry, intellectual destination as well as its long and storied history of standing up for the rights of speakers to be heard on campus! Hopefully this will inspire the newest generation of University of Chicago students to take these values to heart, and hopefully other schools around the nation will once again be inspired by the Chicago Model of free speech and expression.
As far as I can tell, this is the first article written about this letter that will hopefully be the first of many more sent to students down the road. So please, share this with your administrators!