January 14, 2011

Let it burn

The FIRE report on free speech misses the point of current University policies

As reported in Tuesday’s Maroon, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has issued another volume of its annual report, "The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses." Of course, a new report means another grade of “red stoplight” (the lowest rung on FIRE’s idiosyncratic grading system) for the U of C and hundreds of other schools that somehow ran afoul of FIRE’s standards for protecting free speech.

This is the fifth such report issued by FIRE since 2006, and while it is remarkable in a number of ways—its dogged documentation of speech codes from almost 400 institutions, its willingness to cherry-pick language from those codes and present it in the least flattering context—what’s most striking is that FIRE has managed to prepare five lengthy reports on free speech in higher education while having only the flimsiest understanding of what “free speech in higher education” actually entails.

Universities aren’t simply another venue for people to get together and chat politely. They are meant to encourage discussion that is honest and uninhibited, and which would be impossible in many other settings. The very notion of a university presumes that some types of conversations are, if not “better” than others, then at least more productive. To have a university, you have to first accept that not all words and ideas are of equal use.

Consistent with that idea, the U of C and many other private universities choose to regulate speech that overwhelmingly tends to stifle productive discussion. Slurs, abusive words, and other forms of intimidating speech can be distinctly counterproductive in a university setting, and so merit varying levels of intervention by administrators.

In FIRE’s grade book, schools get dinged for having policies which “clearly and substantially [restrict] freedom of speech” or “could be interpreted to suppress” speech protected by the First Amendment. But universities don’t exist to encourage just any of the myriad forms of speech guaranteed by the Constitution; their mission is more narrow, and oftentimes their speech codes are, accordingly, more pointed.

That’s not to say we feel restricted in what we say. U of C guidelines specifically say the administration will neither “attempt to shield people from ideas they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive,” nor always “intervene to enforce social standards of civility.” And administrators have encouraged free and productive speech in ways that wouldn’t register on FIRE’s survey of university policies. In the fall of 2009, President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum went so far as to send a campus-wide e-mail discussing the importance of an unencumbered exchange of ideas, and reminding us that open debate requires both freedom and restraint.

That’s the kind of balanced, nuanced thought that abounds on this campus and is largely missing in FIRE’s report. Realistically, there’s little chance that FIRE adopts a set of free-speech standards that actually pertain to the work of universities—that would be the reasonable thing to do, and being reasonable rarely gets you the attention of pundits and donors—but as far as we’re concerned, the U of C is doing what it should to protect free speech on campus, and the administrators have the green light to run all the red stoplights FIRE cares to prop up.

—The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.