More Colleges Are Adopting Free-Speech ‘Chicago Principles’

Published September 13, 2019

More than 60 colleges and universities across the nation have signed a statement affirming campus free-speech protections.

The statement was developed by the University of Chicago in 2014 after numerous national incidents on college and university campuses in which invited speakers were shouted down by protesters, and professors who took unpopular positions were verbally and physically assaulted by students and others, with college authorities failing to provide sufficient protection to ensure safety.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made headlines when she declined to speak at Rutgers University after weeks of protests against her.

Better known as the Chicago Statement or the Chicago Principles, the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression was composed by the University of Chicago to set a standard for protecting freedom of speech.

The statement confirms the university “guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The statement emphasizes “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Free Speech Support Spreads

Five years after its creation, the Chicago Statement is continuing to spread across the states and even internationally. Sixty-six American higher education institutions have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Principles or a substantially similar statement, reports the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a student rights advocacy group, as of July 12.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida called on the state’s 40 public universities and state colleges to sign a version of the Chicago Statement on April 15.

The movement has even reached Canada. The conservative premier of Alberta is requiring universities in the province to adopt a freedom of speech policy conforming to the Chicago Principles.

Protests Continue

Protests against speakers have continued despite the calls for protection of free speech rights. Usually, the speakers being harassed are conservative or libertarian. Among countless such incidents, writer Charles Murray was prevented by a mob from speaking at Middlebury College in 2017. Soon after, a talk by outspoken feminist Laura Kipnis at Wellesley College led faculty members to declare she shouldn’t have been allowed to speak there.

Violent protests caused the University of California-Berkeley to shut down commentator Milo Yiannopoulos just two hours before he was scheduled to begin a speech there. Later in 2017, syndicated columnist Ann Coulter canceled her scheduled appearance at Berkeley after threats of similar violence. St. Olaf College in Minnesota canceled a speech by conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro in 2018.

Speech Codes, Heckler’s Veto

Dire threats to freedom of expression today include “the heckler’s veto used by campus radicals” and “campus speech codes” adopted by college administrations, says Lance Izumi, an education scholar at the Pacific Research Institute.

“Free speech at higher education institutions is being threatened from outside and within campuses,” Izumi said.

“Right now, it is often difficult to know the extent of free speech on college campuses,” Izumi said. “Policies are either murky or arbitrary. Adoption of the Chicago Principles would advertise in bold letters that free speech is the policy of the university.”

Calls Principled Stand ‘Vital’

FIRE, which annually rates colleges on their speech policies, endorses the Chicago Principles. Adoption of those principles is crucial to prevent outbreaks of harassment and violence, says Mary Zoeller, a FIRE program officer.

“It is vital an institution unequivocally endorse free expression before a campus controversy erupts,” Zoeller said.

Adopting the principles isn’t just good preparation for speeches; it also distances the university from provocative content, Zoeller says.

“[It] allows administrators to avoid the criticism that they are somehow endorsing the message of the controversial speech,” Zoeller said.

Colgate University’s adoption of a version of the Chicago Statement in 2018 may have had just that effect. When students protested a scheduled speech by famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz—a liberal Hillary Clinton supporter who has publicly defended President Donald Trump—later that year, university President Brian Casey cited Colgate’s free speech statement in affirming Dershowitz’s right to speak.

Speech Codes Persist

Not all endorsements of the Chicago Principles have led to success stories. After Williams College professors signed a petition in support of the statement, about 20 left-wing student protestors—carrying signs proclaiming “Free speech is hate speech!”—disrupted a faculty meeting. Many of the professors withdrew support for the statement, and the protestors won.

Despite such instances of backsliding, schools are gradually removing restrictions on free speech. FIRE’s 2019 Speech Code Report, a survey of 466 public and private U.S. institutions of higher education, gave 89.7 percent of schools surveyed either a “red light” or “yellow light” rating. Those ratings indicate the schools restrict speech that is protected under the U.S. Constitution. However, the percentage of private schools with red light ratings fell below 50 percent for the first time in the 11 years the annual report has been published.

Public vs. Private

Statistics show public institutions of higher education have a better free speech record than private schools at present.

Only 25 private institutions have adopted the Chicago Principles, compared to 41 public institutions. Forty-seven percent of the private schools of higher education surveyed for FIRE’s report earned a failing “red light” rating, versus 23 percent of the public institutions.

On March 21, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring higher education institutions to allow “free inquiry” in order to receive federal grants.

Harry Painter (j[email protected]) writes from New York City, New York.

Internet Info:

Geoffrey R. Stone, et al., “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” University of Chicago, January 6, 2015: