An increasing number of universities in the United States are committing to the Chicago Statement: an endorsement of the importance of free speech and the open debate of controversial ideas.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), a pro free-speech, non-profit organisation, the statement has been adopted by Purdue, Princeton, American University, John Hopkins, Chapman, Winston-Salem State and the University of Wisconsin system.
Several other universities, such as Louisiana State, who sacked a professor in June of last year for using rude words in a class designed to prepare teachers for careers in inner-city schools, are now considering copying the University of Chicago and adopting this statement.
The Chicago Statement came in response to a number of universities cancelling invitations to controversial speakers and to perceived challenges to academic freedom. The three-page document states: “It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.
“Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable”. The responsibility of a university, it concludes, is not only to promote “fearless freedom of debate”, but also to protect it.
The statement built upon the college’s own history as a protector of free speech. However, the wide adoption of the statement came as a surprise, says Geoffrey Stone, chair of the committee that would restate Chicago’s principles on free speech.
Yet there are still limits to the Chicago Statement. Expression that “invades substantial privacy”, or which “constitutes a genuine threat” can be reprimanded. Additionally, the university has the right to regulate the “time, place and manner of expression”. However, the statement was written not only to allow free speech but to facilitate protest. With increasing campus protests across the United States taking place, it seems that more universities are looking to follow Chicago’s example in a bid to prevent academic censorship.