A rare win for freedom of expression on a university campus

Restricting freedom of speech has economic costs. Just ask University of Missouri after the Melissa Click incident.
Restricting freedom of speech has economic costs. Just ask University of Missouri after the Melissa Click incident. AP

Freedom of expression isn’t always comfortable; but it’s always worth protecting.

That’s why the University of Chicago was correct and courageous when its dean of students, John Ellison, earlier this year welcomed the class of 2020 by saying it does not support practices that obstruct academic inquiry.

At a time of growing unrest nationally and on campuses, Chicago reminded students that members of the university community must engage with a variety of views and be free to express their opinions without fear of censorship or reprisal.

Chicago’s fortitude stands in contrast to many universities muzzling free speech in the name of insulating students from potentially offensive views.

While everyone deserves courtesy, respect and civility, some schools have gone too far. On campus after campus, speakers have been disinvited or barred, limiting students’ opportunities to listen and learn.

In this climate, defending free speech is not easy or popular for universities – a startlingly large number of students now treat this fundamental right with skepticism.

A Gallup survey from this year found 27 percent of college students approve of campus restrictions on “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups,” and nearly half support restrictions on press coverage of protests.

Rising campus ambivalence about free expression makes the University of Chicago’s message all the more necessary.

Academic freedom has helped make America’s system of higher education the envy of the world. Think of all of the discoveries and advances that never would have been possible if universities didn’t allow legitimate speech and inquiry.

And therein lies the real danger for higher education. As institutions move to regulate speech and debate and shut out divergent views, students stand to lose.

Welcoming all views is not only a matter of fairness, but it is also essential to the mission of colleges and universities.

Sadly, American institutions of higher education are increasingly squelching speech and teaching students it’s acceptable for them to entertain only views with which they are comfortable.

Not only does the constriction of academic freedom grate against Americans’ First Amendment rights, it also falls far short of the values alumni and other supporters of higher education expect.

For a cautionary tale about the ramifications of undermining free speech, consider University of Missouri, which rose to notoriety after an embarrassing episode in which an assistant professor, Melissa Click, assaulted a student journalist and requested “some muscle” to remove him from a protest site.

After the university’s botched handling of the incident, Mizzou alumni voted with their wallets, and giving plummeted.

The University of Chicago, fortunately, is leading a growing vanguard in the fight for free expression on campus.

In 2014, it adopted a model policy, now informally called the Chicago Principles, to protect and support campus free speech. Other universities including Princeton, the University of Wisconsin and American University have adopted the same or similar principles.

President Barack Obama, in a 2016 Howard University commencement speech, talked of the importance of engaging with all ideas and listening to speakers who have views with which they disagree.

University of Chicago and President Obama provided an important reminder that we only harm ourselves when we limit speech and debate.

For the benefit of students and our country, let’s hope more colleges and universities follow Chicago’s example.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill works at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a liberal arts education nonprofit.