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January 11, 2011

U of C gets 'red light' for stopping free speech

Though The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) suggests that University of Chicago students protest the Bias incident policy, current protesting rules would require students to notify the University two days in advance. In its annual free speech survey of 390 institutes for higher education, FIRE gave U of C the lowest rating possible.

Throughout his tenure, President Robert Zimmer has repeatedly defended free discourse as crucial to academic communities, and specifically addressed the issue at a talk at the Law School last spring. But he has alluded to the challenges of creating an environment that encourages such freedom, noting that it is not always straightforward.

Regarding how the University should handle issues of free speech, Zimmer said at an open forum in November, “These questions are not completely intuitive.”

But FIRE’s stringent guidelines mean that any institution that “has at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access” receives a “red light rating.” The University shares the institution’s lowest rating with 261 other campuses, or 67 percent of those surveyed.

Only three percent of the campuses, including Dartmouth and University of Pennsylvania, received “green lights” for allowing full freedom of expression, while 27 percent earned yellow lights for limiting freedom of speech only in very specific instances.

A review of the U of C’s policy by Samantha Harris, the director of Speech Code research for FIRE, stated that the University’s bias policy was “the most problematic.” This policy allows the University to investigate offensive, but not necessarily illegal, speech acts on campus. Examples of such action, as stated in the University student handbook, include derogatory comments made in person or on a dorm whiteboard.

Adam Kissel (M.A.’02), director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, encouraged students to petition against the policy. “Students should advocate to abolish the bias incident policy in its current form or to significantly revise it to protect student expression,” he said in an email.

Policy regarding student demonstrations was also described as “highly problematic” in Harris’s review. The U of C requires that student protests be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance, allowing the administration to investigate protests that may be considered offensive, although not illegal.

The University protest policy, found in the student handbook, states that “freedom of expression is vital to our shared goal of the pursuit of knowledge.”

But Kissel disagreed that the U of C prioritized free speech. In an e-mail, Kissel said, “In my experience, University of Chicago’s administration has demonstrated a trend of ignoring or belittling campus critics.”

As a private institution, the University is not bound by First Amendment protections. But even public institutions of education are permitted to prohibit speech that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities,” according to the Supreme Court case Davis v. Monroe Board of Education.

FIRE’s media attention was most recently drawn to the U of C last March, when it reported that fourth-year Joseph “Tex” Dozier was contacted by University police for posting a joke that he had had a dream about assassinating University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer “for a secret Israeli organization” on Facebook in December 2009.

“Any reasonable person would recognize that Mr. Dozier’s post was unquestionably a joke,” said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley in a March press release.

FIRE noted in its press release that while most schools were failing to meet their criteria, it was an improvement from last year, when three-fourths of the schools received “red light” ratings.

“Unlike most universities, the University [of Chicago] has failed to acknowledge FIRE’s specific concerns,” Kissel said in an e-mail.

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