September 11, 2017

Freedom of Suppression

President Zimmer's letter responding to Charlottesville violence may have exposed discrepancies in the University's typical free speech rhetoric.

President Robert J. Zimmer’s e-mail regarding recent events in Charlottesville clarifies the University’s stance on freedom of expression. In his email, Zimmer states unambiguously that the use of threats or force to advocate for a specific viewpoint is not only inconsistent with, but is, in fact, contrary to the kind of free expression that the University espouses. Zimmer ultimately describes the violence in Charlottesville as a suppression of free speech.

The letter, while first shared weeks ago, raises an interesting and enduring question for the University: Is it possible that the University itself—through its investments—inadvertently supports the suppression of free expression? That is, does the University invest in entities that profit from the restriction of free expression, and if so, are these investments legitimate? One might first wonder: Are there actually investments that benefit from the restriction of free expression? Certainly it’s not difficult to imagine such investments. For example, a tobacco company might have an interest in silencing the voices of those who warn of the health detriments associated with tobacco use. A more nuanced question may be: Do entities that could profit from the restriction of free expression actually attempt to restrict free expression? On the one hand, it may be reasonable to believe that the University’s investment in fossil fuels does not directly endanger free expression because perhaps fossil fuel companies don’t undertake any active measures to suppress free expression. On the other hand, consider the University’s refusal to divest from the genocidal Khartoum regime in Darfur. Isn’t it possible that the University, by not divesting from Darfur, directly supported and even enabled the use of violence for the suppression of free expression?

Many hypothetical scenarios can be contrived to test the consistency of the University’s positions. Consider the following thought experiment: The University’s investment office learns of an opportunity to make money by selling weapons to Nazis or white supremacists. Moreover, the University is informed that these weapons will be used for—in part or in whole—the suppression of free expression, as in Charlottesville. Is it reasonable for the University to profit (in strict financial terms) from such an opportunity?

Historically, the University has dismissed divestment campaigns by citing the Kalven Report, the famous 1967 document that recommends extensive institutional neutrality because of the potential for (controversial) institutional stances to compromise the University’s commitment to free expression. However, in the case of investments that threaten free expression itself, the Kalven Report might not be a reasonable excuse for not divesting. This is because the Kalven Report exists for the very purpose of protecting free expression! A quote from the Kalven Report reads: “The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”

It’s important to understand that the University believes that institutional neutrality is necessary for free expression to exist. This belief informs how the Kalven Report fits into the larger goals of the University. The institutional neutrality advocated for in the Kalven Report is a result of the University’s longstanding commitment to free expression, which is itself a result of the University’s unwavering mission to produce knowledge (i.e., ideas that can withstand the strongest scrutiny). The subtle point is that, because of these causal relationships, the Kalven Report advocates institutional neutrality only in the context of protecting free expression. It does not advocate institutional neutrality beyond this context. As an example of this, consider that the willingness to protect free expression is itself a normative institutional stance; however, the Kalven Report does not suggest that the University stop protecting free expression; free expression is a “higher value”—as it were—than institutional neutrality. As it relates to investments, insofar as the protection of free expression serves as the underlying motivation for the Kalven Report, the validity of the Kalven Report as a justification for inaction is questionable when the issue at stake concerns free expression itself.

My main question remains open: is it legitimate for the University to invest in entities that restrict free expression? Several other related questions also come to mind:

1. Does the University have any obligation to protect free expression for people outside of the University community? On the other hand, isn’t it possible that people in the University community are subject to the suppression of free expression—perhaps outside the geographic bounds of the University? For example, isn't it possible that a University member participated in protests in Charlottesville?

2. Google recently fired an engineer for writing a memo that, as far as I can tell, would be protected under the University’s policy on free expression. Presumably, the University has at least some investment interest in Google. Is it really reasonable—or even feasible—for the University to divest from Google because of the possibility that Google suppresses free expression? If the University were to divest from Google for this reason, how many other investments would the University have to forgo? In this case, what could possibly be a legitimate investment?

3. Are these kinds of scenarios in which the University has some investment interest in the suppression of free expression so rare that they are not worth consideration?

4. Is there a systematic way of avoiding these kinds of scenarios? Is there even a reason to avoid these scenarios?

5. Is an endowment model even appropriate for the University of Chicago?

While I, at least as of right now, wholeheartedly support the ideas in both the Report of the Committee on the Freedom of Expression and the Kalven Report, I also believe that these questions—and others—are worth discussing by members of the University community in order to evaluate the consistency between these reports and the University’s actions.

Rohit Chandran is a third-year in the College studying mathematics with a specialization in economics.