University of Chicago: The New Front Line of Free Speech

The University of Chicago is making headlines for sending a letter to incoming students telling them that they better come ready to learn. It was once presumed that college would be a place filled with debate, discussion, and discomfort – natural outputs of any issue that can support more than one point of view. But recently, political correctness has taken hold, bringing with it trigger warnings, accusations of “mansplaining,” tone policing, micro aggressions and check-your-privilege warnings.

Colleges, the vast majority of which are predominantly staffed by liberal administrators and professors, have mostly bowed to students’ newfound need to be shielded from scary ideas. Of course, our fellow students share some of the blame for the gradual erosion of the First Amendment on campus. The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale recently commissioned a poll that found that 51 percent of students favored their school having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty. Sixty-three percent favor requiring professors to employ “trigger warnings” to alert students to discomfiting material. Thirty-percent of self-identified liberal students went so far as to say the First Amendment is outdated (yikes!).

This is a noticeable historical flip-flop from the 1960s went campus radicals fought against perceived oppression and fought for their right to be heard. Reason’s Robby Soave writes:

It also seems clear that many young people—particularly liberal young people—see the First Amendment as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than a fundamental bulwark that safeguards their own rights. This is a significant social change; the ‘60s leftists, for instance, properly understood that advocates of radical ideas had to fight for unfettered expression for all in order to guarantee that their own views would be shielded from repression. But perhaps campus leftists can no longer imagine a world where their ideas are broadly vulnerable to censorship—they see the First Amendment as something that only racist, bigoted conservatives need.

In this type of climate, University of Chicago Dean of Students decided to send a letter letting students know what to expect when they arrived at campus.

“Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship,” the letter says. “Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and cause you discomfort.”

Unsurprisingly, some attacked the University’s stance. One writer for the New Republic called its  “perverse document” akin to “the French Burkini ban: an illiberal policy justified in the name of liberal values.” But one doesn’t have to flip through many issues of that particular magazine to find a well argued excoriation of PC culture. Jenny Jarvie wrote:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

Nor does it equip us with the tools necessary to win the argument. How can we learn if we’re only surrounding ourselves with people who share our exact social, political, ethical, and religious beliefs? What good is conversation or debate if we only engage in it with people who already agree with us? Why aren’t we comfortable enough in the strength of our arguments and our viewpoints to subject them to some discussion or challenge?

As the University of Chicago letter so eloquently argues, these types of questions are the bedrock of our system of higher education.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” the letter said.

Because that’s exactly what it were dealing with: Retreat. A retreat from unfamiliar ideas. A retreat from intellectual headwinds. A retreat from the intellectual messiness outside of carefully controlled college campuses. A retreat from a world that is desperate for agents of change. And that to me seems fundamentally at odds with any notions of progress or progressivism.