Editorial: Taking a stand for speech that might infuriate you

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University of Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison has sent a letter to students saying the university rejects the concepts of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as running counter to free and open discourse. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Last February, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, then running for re-election in the Democratic primary, was shouted right out of a room by angry protestors at a forum at the University of Chicago. She left before she could speak.

This was not the only time a speaker was shouted down at the university last school year, and the University of Chicago certainly is not the only institution of higher learning here or across the nation struggling with how to handle a seemingly growing intolerance for free and vigorous debate on campus. As recently as last month, DePaul University denied a request from a student group to bring conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to speak on campus. Two months earlier, DePaul did nothing when protesters stormed a stage and forced another conservative commentator to leave.

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With that in mind, it’s heartening to read a vigorous defense of free speech and intellectual inquiry — even when it makes people deeply uncomfortable — in a letter that University of Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison recently sent to all members of the class of 2020. You could call it a letter of warning: At Chicago, dear students, we put freedom of expression above tender feelings. You might also call it an invitation: Join us in a thrilling, if not always comfortable, exchange of ideas.

In the letter, Ellison rejects the concept of “trigger warnings,” by which professors are required to warn students in advance of specific material in a course, such as a book that touches on racism or sexual abuse, that the students might find upsetting. Ellison also writes that the university does not condone “safe spaces” to which students can flee from anxiety-inducing class discussions. A national survey last year of 800 professors found that 60 percent did not like trigger warnings, saying they essentially invited students to “avoid engaging in uncomfortable course material.”

It’s hard to know just how common safe spaces really are, but they are not an urban myth. Brown University, for example, set up a safe space room last year stocked with coloring books, bubbles, calming music and pillows.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” Ellison writes, “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.”

In another key passage, Ellison writes, “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.”

That last sentence would seem to cut both ways, warning that the university will not tolerate efforts to suppress the free speech of others — as the protesters did in shouting down Alvarez — but also implying that there are reasonable limits.

The point is made more directly in a university faculty committee report on free expression produced last year: “The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The university may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests.”

The committee, however, hastened to add: “These are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression.”

The question now is whether the University of Chicago will stick to its guns when confronted by the next actual attack on free expression. Will it defend the presence of an invited speaker even when the views expressed might be loathsome to many, or will it fail to act? As suggested in a blog post by University of Chicago political science professor Charles Lipson, the university should take several steps to reinforce the message in Ellison’s letter. It should explain these “core values” to all new student during orientation week and punish anybody — student or non-student — who disrupts an event to deny others the right to have their say.

“Regular protests are fine, of course,” Lipson writes. They are precisely what free-speech rules protect. March around with signs. Explain your views. Hold your own alternative events. But disrupting speeches, classes and events is not fine.”

In our times, intolerance for free expression usually is seen as more of a problem on the left, at least on college campuses. Conservative speakers get disinvited and shouted down, not liberal speakers. But that’s a short-sighted understanding of the threat. One of the most noted efforts to suppress free speech at the University of Chicago occurred in 1932, when a student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for president, to lecture on campus. Conservatives, both on and off campus, demanded the lecture be canceled. But the university’s revered president, Robert M. Hutchins, refused to do so.

There’s a rule of sports that works just as well for a healthy debate: No pain, no gain. Or as another former University of Chicago president, Hanna Holborn Gray, once said: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable. It is meant to make them think.”

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