Much Ado About Speakers on Campus?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Continuing our series of comments from the University of Chicago community regarding Dean John Ellison’s letter, many alumni have expressed that the letter seemed more geared towards the problem regarding speakers on campus than safe spaces. (My colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote yesterday about this topic at Syracuse University.)

From current student Adam Thorp, who is a news editor at the University of Chicago’s student paper The Maroon:

As a reporter and editor I follow campus activism fairly closely. I think it is true that there are a lot of people at this school with intellectual commitments on issues like trigger warnings and safe spaces, and when the issue comes up people are willing to argue vehemently about this from either side. But as a matter of practical activism, I haven’t seen concerted calls for mandatory trigger warnings, school-supported safe spaces or disinvitation of speakers. This might be because these things are clearly a non-starter with the administration; it might also be that the student body is less enthusiastic about these ideas than students at other institutions. Eric Holmberg, the incoming student body president who I’d generally characterize as activist-friendly and left-leaning, told the Maroon in the aftermath of the letter that he did not support disinvitation.

There have, however, been high-volume debates about freedom of speech on campus.

In one week last winter, two speakers showed up on campus to protests intense enough that they were forced to end their talks (one was a pro-Israel Palestinian activist; the other was the incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney). To be clear, no one, to my knowledge, tried to cancel their invitations. David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics hosted the State’s Attorney, and he responded with a letter calling for respect for freedom of speech; some students responded vehemently (“How dare you move your pen to call my friends loud and profane because they do not have the same white mouth as you?”) and argued that protest was itself an expression of freedom of speech.

The issue came up again when [a second-year student] and Fifth Ward Republican committeeman, Matthew Foldi, brought a pro-free speech resolution before Student Government’s General Assembly. The resolution was brought in response to the incidents above, and failed by a narrow margin. The issue at hand was, firstly, whether protests constitute free speech even when they prevent other people from speaking and, secondly, whether they really wanted to call for students to be arrested or removed.  

Alum James Kraft also suspects that the free speech debate on the University of Chicago campus is more about persistent disruptions to the invitation of controversial speakers:

My first reaction to reading the dean’s letter was extremely positive. On reflection, I vacillated a little, but ultimately, I think I was right in the first place. Most of the reactions to the letter that I have read so far seem to reflect a lack of familiarity with the University of Chicago's approach to education, and a failure to read the letter itself closely.

I chose to attend the University of Chicago because of its unique pedagogy, which must constantly be defended against the anti-elitist tendencies that are natural in a democratic society. This pedagogy is based on traditional academic values such as civility, respect for the received canon, and a total commitment to the rational truth as it emerges in discourse. Basically, an education is believed to be that which emerges when a bunch of nerds read great texts sympathetically, then debate them fiercely, with a Socratic interlocutor who demands that certain traditional “rules of the road” are followed in discussion and in writing. One’s “personal experience” is not considered particularly valuable in this framework, and in fact is often explicitly excluded from the conversation.

The letter primarily addresses two issues: trigger warnings, and “intellectual safe spaces.” I think it’s significant that that word “intellectual” is appended to the “safe spaces” part. I don’t think the dean was signaling his opposition to rape crisis centers or minority student associations—he was talking about disruption of invited speakers addresses to the college, such as what occurred when States Attorney Anita Alvarez was invited to the college in February and when Bassem Eid did that same month. Using physical force (shouting) and threats of violence to prevent an invited speaker from addressing the University because you disagree with what you expect he or she will say is totally inimical to the traditions of civility in academic life. Rah-rah to the Dean for standing up for controversial voices.

As for trigger warnings, clearly the Dean believes them to be a form of censorship (he used that word in the letter, yet I have not read a single article on the controversy that addressed this issue specifically), and I have to agree with him. Dissenters from the letter tend to open their statements by saying “he doesn’t know what a trigger warning is,” and tend to say something like “it has a specific, medical meaning.” … Putting all the dirty books in a different room with a curtain around it absolutely affects how seriously they are taken.  If you inform all readers of Ulysses beforehand to brace themselves, because it treats with themes of sexual violence and colonialism, you are telling them to approach that text in a less receptive and more defensive posture, and prejudging the book’s entire thematic content. Sure, the censors may be right occasionally—even usually—when they declare a book wrong-thinking, but that process tends to end extremely badly, as the academy has learned through much historical experience.

Given the waters he was treading into, the Dean probably should have included an apologetic statement about the University's treatment of minorities and the poor, which has been absolutely abysmal (I actually think they have an astonishingly good record on LGBTQ issues, including having the first gay/straight organization in the country to keep open minutes—Queers and Associates). That’s regrettable, and typical of the arrogance of the administration at the U of C. But it requires a certain amount of arrogance to require all of your students to read Thucydides sympathetically in 2016. I’m inclined to forgive the omission.