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Does the University of Chicago Really Protect Free Expression?

By John K. Wilson

It’s praiseworthy that the University of Chicago has announced to its students a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” But there is a problem: in this announcement, the University actually calls for limiting freedom of expression, and University of Chicago policies also severely limit free inquiry and student rights.

According to the letter, “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.”

I don’t like trigger warnings, but it is a fundamental academic freedom right of individual faculty to choose whether or not to give a trigger warning. This statement seems to indicate that trigger warnings aren’t allowed at the University of Chicago, and that’s wrong.

Even worse is that statement that the University of Chicago doesn’t “condone” safe spaces. If the University of Chicago does not “condone” people creating safe spaces, then it doesn’t condone individual liberty. Everyone is free to create their own “safe spaces” where they can retreat from things they don’t like. I don’t like safe spaces, but I would never suggest that they should be banned.

For all of the high-minded invocation of free speech, the University of Chicago has one of the worst speech codes (and perhaps the most confusing one) that I’ve ever read. It’s full of arbitrary power, lack of due process, and multiple disciplinary systems.

The worst part of it gives the Dean of Students total authority to effectively expel students without a hearing on extremely vague grounds. It’s called the “Involuntary Leave of Absence Policy.”

Under the policy, “the Dean of Students may require an involuntary leave of absence when he or she determines: (1) that the student has engaged, or threatened to engage, in conduct that has caused or is likely to cause serious disruption to the learning, extra-curricular and living activities of members of the community or others, including by impeding the rightful activities of others.”

A student can also be banned if “a student’s conduct raises concerns about the safety and well-being of the student or others, or causes significant disruption to the functioning of the University.” If the University of Chicago doesn’t believe in safe spaces, perhaps it shouldn’t ban students without a hearing over posing a risk to the “well-being” of anyone.

And if a student doesn’t like the “involuntary leave of absence” imposed by the Dean of Students, they can request a review—by the same Dean of Students who just banned them from campus without a hearing. And according to the policy, “The decision is final and unreviewable within the University.”

If you are arrested for any crime, if your conduct “raises concerns” about the “well-being” of anyone, if you cause “significant disruption” (whatever that means) you can be banned from campus without a hearing or appeal.

What does disruption mean? According to the U of C protest policy, “Disruptive conduct includes but is not limited to (1) obstruction, impairment, or interference with University sponsored or authorized activities or facilities in a manner that is likely to or does deprive others of the benefit or enjoyment of the activity or facility…”

What if your “enjoyment” of an activity or facility is affected by someone’s protest, as it often is? Under these rules, you can be punished. In fact, because the clause includes the phrase “is not limited to,” the University of Chicago can punish you for anything it deems disruptive, even if it doesn’t affect someone’s “enjoyment.” Isn’t the University of Chicago’s “enjoyment” protections the very definition of a “safe space”?

The University also has the “right to deny individuals access to all or some University property” for “suspicious activity, or behavior that is or is likely to be…disruptive to University operations and activities.” Yes, merely being “suspicious” or deemed “likely to be disruptive,” without actually being disruptive, is grounds for being banned from University of Chicago property, again without a hearing or an appeal.