In 2012, the University Chicago released a Statement on Principles of Free Expression, which is an antidote to activist demands that institutions of higher learning disinvite, shut down, or shout down invited campus speakers like Heather Mac Donald, a wrong-thinker on Black Lives Matter, or Christian Hoff Sommers, a wrong-thinker on feminism.
Episodes like those above are relatively rare—the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) counted 42 in the record year of 2016. And as the political scientist Jeffrey Sachs points out, controversial conservative speakers, including some fringe figures, sometimes tell us, at length and without interruption, how repressive universities are from behind podiums provided by colleges and universities. Still, it can hardly be doubted that even a small number of shout-downs can make those of us who arrange speaker visits think twice about inviting valuable speakers like Mac Donald and Sommers.
The Chicago Statement is therefore useful because it commits the University to “the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” And it lays down a marker: those who object to a speaker can criticize, protest, and condemn her. But they “may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
At Williams College, one of the most prestigious small schools in the country, some faculty ran into a wall when they proposed that Williams adopt a version of the Chicago Statement. Over 300 students signed a petition denouncing the Statement as having “grave potential to further silence the voices of people of color, queer people, disabled people, poor people, and others outside the center of power.”
We need not dwell on the anti-liberal argument of the petition, nearly as old as liberalism itself, according to which professions in favor of liberty and equality are nearly always cloaks for the oppression of some groups by others. Nor should we dwell on the laughable complaint that the discussion of free speech at Williams College is dominated by “conservatives.” Small secular colleges tilt even more toward left-liberalism than other colleges, and New England schools have a far greater ratio of liberals to conservatives—28 to 1, according to one estimate—than schools elsewhere. In a sense, David Brooks is right to call the petition a “perfect encapsulation of the fundamentalism sweeping America’s elite colleges.” But one doesn’t even have to squint to see another trend that, because it is relatively new, may be worth dwelling on.
Recently, over one hundred Williams College faculty members signed a petition to endorse a version of the Chicago Statement. If you had told me a year ago that more than a quarter of the faculty of a small super-elite New England college could be moved to sign a petition in favor of free speech absolutism, I would have felt your forehead for fever. But Williams College faculty are not alone. FIRE now lists 53 colleges, large and small, prestigious and middling, that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement. Even when a college incorporates some elements of the prevailing philosophy of diversity and inclusion in its endorsement of unfettered free expression, as Colgate University does, it nonetheless insists that it will “not suppress ideas because some consider them wrong, immoral, or offensive.”
There is a movement, about which I’ve written, that regards free speech as an impediment to the triumph of the left in our college and universities. We should take note of it when we see it. But there is also a counter-movement that merits our attention and support, embodied in the Chicago Statement and supported by, among others one could name, FIRE, the Heterodox Academy, the Koch Foundation, and the Institute of Humane Studies (full disclosure: the latter two organizations have supported some of my work). At the end of 2018, defenders of free speech and academic freedom have a lot of fight left in them.