By Leslie Spencer
Princetonians for Free Speech
It’s no surprise that the University of Chicago has made by far the biggest, boldest and most serious move of any university in the country to confront the crisis of free speech and academic freedom at American universities. Chicago ranks #1 on FIRE’s survey for a reason. On October 5-6, the University of Chicago launched a new permanent entity, the Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, with a ground-breaking inaugural event bringing together the country’s leading lights on the state of free speech at American universities to examine what the problem is, how we got here, and what might be done.
To give a sense of how important the University of Chicago’s leadership regards this new initiative, consider its signature series, The Day Tomorrow Began. The series presents what the university considers its contribution to the monumental breakthroughs in human understanding in all fields – nuclear physics, cancer research, ancient civilizations, black holes.The Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression is the newest addition to this list. The Forum is soon to have its own building, and has a bold agenda that includes research grants to faculty and students, the development of K – 12 curricular best practices, and even guidance on how to inculcate Chicago’s principles in the corporate sector.
The richness of the panel discussions at this historic launch was in part due to the Forum’s commitment to include the voices of those who do not believe in the value of unfettered free speech, and who instead endorse the principle with heavy qualifications and only as one among competing values. The result laid bare the heart of the matter: Do the exigencies of the social justice and DEI mission that now dominate college campuses today curtail academic freedom and the pursuit of truth? Are these two principles mutually reinforcing or are they incompatible?
Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins University in Virginia, appeared on the opening panel. She rejects the value of free speech unfettered as articulated in the Chicago Principles. “This is an event where one’s intersectional identities are brought to the fore…. With my whole heart I believe that the goal of education is the freeing of minds. Intellectually I understand that education demands free expression, but when you peel away the theory you find it is more complicated. … Traditionally marginalized groups [pay] a much higher price for freedom for expression compared to those who are not…. So I have a complicated relationship with this topic. I can understand the theoretical piece and support it, but my north star is around justice and equity. I want to push to expand critical thinking and the freeing of minds. But I also think it is critically important to honor the humanity of those around us — and all too often free expression is code language for ‘let me challenge your humanity.’ … We have to really think through the educative value when we are invoking the phrase ‘free expression.’ Whose humanity might be challenged in a conversation and does that educative value outweigh [the value of free speech].”
Several participants echoed the view that the “equity lens” must influence how free speech is practiced. The argument seems to boil down to this: It is legitimate to curtail speech that might cause “harm” or offense to a minority group member at the moment of being spoken. To prevent the “harm” you have to prohibit the speech before it happens. To legitimize this prohibition of speech, you have to commit to a theory that recategorized any speech which some people might find offensive to a form of violence that can cause “harm” and is therefore forbidden.
Former ACLU President and life-long liberal Nadine Strossen acknowledged her concern about the special and disproportionate burden that free speech guarantees might have on historically marginalized groups, but pointed to the benefits of speech that can make individuals from minority groups uncomfortable. “Universities should be especially aware of the impact on marginalized people. … I completely understand that freedom of speech is a double-edged sword,” she said. “I defend freedom, for example, for hate speech, not despite the fact that it clearly can have an intimidating and chilling impact on other people’s speech, but because I think the alternative of centralized suppression is worse, especially for those groups that have traditionally been marginalized and disempowered.”
The most candid, passionate and eloquent rebuttal to the ”harm narrative” came in a riveting dialogue between an odd-couple: David Rubenstein, billionaire investor, philanthropist and Chair of University of Chicago Board, and Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer-prize winning Muslim-American playwright and novelist of Pakistani heritage, who is currently President of PEN America.
Ahktar considers himself an artist first, and as such he does not want to have a political point of view, which he believes is a deterrent to artistic expression. But he sees as a real threat the pressures on writers to refrain from saying what they want to say. “I joke that I feel like we are entering a period of socialist realism without the genocide” Akhtar said, bemoaning the “codification of forms, the accepted way of talking about certain issues, ideas, identities, [that is] leading to a deformed version of our world. … And we participate in this to make ourselves feel better!”
He apologized for his uncharacteristic “stridency” but the “dimming interest in free expression” now spreading through universities, non-profits, cultural centers, civil rights and other organizations has truly alarmed him, and he is no longer afraid to articulate why.
“I hear an argument that I don’t take seriously any more -- I tried for a time, but I just can’t -- about the harms of speech holding an equal claim on us as the freedom to speak or the freedom to think. I think it is a disqualifying argument.”(emphasis his).
To explain, he turned to his personal experience of the Salman Rushdie affair, and how it provided a life-altering awakening as to why offensive speech needs protecting. He described how the February 1989 fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie tore apart his Milwaukie, Wisconsin Muslim community where most people, including himself at that time, thought Rushdiedeserved his fate. The fatwa led directly to the 2022 on-stage stabbing attack that has left Rushdie partially blind.
Akhtar’s voice raised: “Of course Salman was offensive and harmful – [his writing] was so harmful that many people died from it! … But the necessity to protect his capacity to imagine that transgressively and abundantly and historically is essential to artistic expression. …What is this argument that the harm of speech is somehow more important than that?” He asked incredulously. …There is no argument.”
He cooled down, although not to equivocate, as he turned to solutions: While recognizing the inequities and power differentials that may be felt between marginalized ethnic, gender and other “identity” groups, he remained uncompromising on free speech: “How to deal with the wrongs of history and how to frame changes within a social body to address these neglected and maybe subjected populations? I just think [restricting freedom of speech] is a mistake, … there isn’t really an alternative, you just have to defend the right for people to say stuff you don’t like. It may be unfortunate, but that’s the case. … We have to figure out how we can frame and make compelling to the younger generation an argument for hearing points of view that they think they don’t agree with. They might actually agree with more of what they don’t want to hear if they understood what they were really listening to.”
There was much more to what Ayad Akhter had to say -- his lack of hope for the future of the humanities, his withering critique of today’s “customer service” business model for universities. And that’s not to mention the thought-provoking and wide-ranging discussions between disparate thinking people on the other panels that made up the launch of Chicago’sForum for Free Inquiry and Expression. University of Chicago President Armand Paul Alivastos says this is just the beginning. “You will see the Forum as the place for constant struggle to get this right.” Watch the entire panel discussionsHERE.
The Chicago Forum is the first clear signal that a major American university is willing to question the idea that harmful, even hateful speech needs to be banned to protect minority groups. How did academic administrators, who should have been most protective of intellectual freedom take this wrong turn? Are John Lewis’s words being heard through the fog of speech codes and DEI sanctions? “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would be a bird without wings.”
Elite universities across the country seem to be scrambling to stem the damage wrought by their abandonment of core principles. Major donors of University of Pennsylvania have withdrawn funds and called for the president to step down, dismayed by a university they “no longer recognize.” Stanford Law School’s diversity dean is on permanent leave for encouraging a successful shout-down of an invited speaker. Yale Law School has hired Princeton’s professor Keith Whittington, a leading scholar on free speech and the law, and author ofSpeak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,to head up a new free speech and academic freedom center. Harvard’s nascent faculty group, theCouncil on Academic Freedom, lists over 140 members since its founding earlier this year. Under pressure, Princeton’s President Eisgruber has participated in two programs on free speech for freshmen orientation, and has proclaimed that Princeton’s DEI bureaucracy and its free speech principles do and must co-exist.
But can these and other leading American universities respond to the crisis in free inquiry and expression with the seriousness of purpose that University of Chicago has? In a September 28, 2023letter to Princeton’s trustees, Princetonians for Free Speech called upon them to make Princeton a leader in the country on free speech and academic freedom. This month at the University of Chicago, the bar got a lot higher.
Leslie Spencer ’79 is Vice Chair of Princetonians for Free Speech