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Disruptive Conduct and the University of Chicago

By John K. Wilson

The University of Chicago’s Committee on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct has issued a new report. Peter Wood of the NAS praises the Chicago Report: “It is a welcome step for all of American higher education. Mostly it restores to the campus authorities charged with maintaining order the tools they need to do their jobs.”

In reality, the Report fails to address serious problems with free speech and due process in the University of Chicago’s rules, and mostly makes proposals to reduce free expression on campus by aiming to suppress protest, which seems to be the goal of the University’s Statute 21.

First, let start with what the Report gets correct. The Report calls for a “centralized disciplinary system.” This is absolutely right. The current decentralized system (where each academic unit decides what is disruptive) is confusing and difficult to determine (I haven’t been able to get an answer from the University of Chicago about what the student conduct rules are in different units, and they aren’t posted online). The University needs a single system to warn students, and to provide fair and consistent enforcement across the campus.

And another part of the Report is correct: it fixes the rules for campus regulations to apply to non-students who engage in disruption. Unfortunately, it forgets to also apply the same protections to them, since it retains the old language of Statute 21 banning “use or threatened use of force against any member of the University community or his or her family that substantially and directly bears upon the member’s functions within the University.”

This is a bad definition because it’s too narrow. Under this rule, you can beat up an outsider at a protest and it’s not disruptive as long as they’re not part of the University. In fact, you can beat up anybody as it doesn’t directly bear upon their “functions,” whatever that means. Why not just say, “use or threatened use of force, except in legitimate self-defense”? In fact, this provision should be removed altogether, because use of force and threats is an entirely different violation, one that is much more serious than “disruptive conduct.”

For outsiders, the University of Chicago uses its power to bar people from campus, and the Committee “expects that a permanent bar will be a rarely used outcome.” What’s missing here is any kind of monitoring and reports about such bans, or guidance about when it’s appropriate.

Unfortunately, the Report offers many flawed definitions of a disruptive protest: “Disruptive protests include: blocking access to an event or to a University facility and shouting or otherwise interrupting an event or other University activity with noise in a way that prevents the event or activity from continuing in its normal course.”

This is a terrible definition of a disruptive protest. There is a fundamental difference between “interrupting” an event and shutting it down. A protest can disrupt the “normal course” of an event without preventing it from continuing altogether.

Statute 21 already includes a terrible definition of disruption: “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”

This is a bad definition because it is way too broad. Any rule that says “includes but is not limited to” is completely unlimited. The University can literally say that anything is disruptive conduct. But the rest of the definition is also dangerously broad. The definition should be obstruction, not merely “impairment” or “interference.” It should be limited to action that actually deprive others of their rights. And it definitely should not be defined to include “enjoyment of the activity or facility.” The “enjoyment” standard is absolutely unacceptable. “Enjoyment” is a subjective standard, not an objective basis for punishment. A protest almost always affects the enjoyment people have at an event. It can annoy and inconvenience people. But being annoying shouldn’t be punishable behavior.

The Report also suggests a new provision to Statute 21 to make it easier to punish protests: “Substantiality may be judged based on a single incident or on an aggregation across incidents.” This vague language should not be adopted. If a single incident does not justify punishment, then repetition of it at different events should not be punished. The only other change it recommends to Statute 21 is altering the rules to remove individual punishment and allow for penalties “whether individually or as part of a group.” This seems to suggest that if a person is part of a group that breaks the rules, even if the individual doesn’t, that person can be punished.

The University of Chicago famously proclaimed itself a place where there are no “safe spaces”: “we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” But it turns out that the University of Chicago does, in fact, create these safe spaces where dissent and protest are banned. The Report concludes, “The University is entitled to impose strict limits on protest activity that threatens especially sensitive facilities and to enforce those limits if they are breached. We do not think it is possible to specify, acontextually, what these limits might be.” I am more than a little disturbed at a Report that endorses “strict limits” on free speech and announces that it is impossible to define what those limits should be.

So what are these “sensitive” spaces? Are they locations where “snowflake” students gather to sob, as so many conservatives might imagine? No. A previous committee reported that it was asked “to consider whether protests and demonstrations at especially sensitive University facilities, such as health care and research facilities, should be treated differently from demonstrations at other University buildings.” So there are special bans on protests if they involve the hospital or the research facilities, that is to say the big money spaces at the university. I suspect that this is an attempt to ban union activism and to bar animal rights activists, and it amounts to a widespread ban on any protests against research or medicine at the University of Chicago, which encompasses a huge part of the university.

Oddly, the Report makes no attempt to explain what facilities are sensitive or to justify why there should be a double standard to ban protests at them. It simply hands over absolute authority to the administration to designate safe spaces and enforce massive bans on free speech at them.

The University of Chicago should not have safe spaces imposed. In fact, Statute 21 should be completely eliminated. “Disruptive conduct” is the only aspect of conduct that is dealt with in the University Statutes (plagiarism, academic dishonesty, illegal drugs, sexual assault, murder, and all other crimes are ignored in the Statutes). The Statutes are an inappropriate place for campus conduct codes, and the fact that the only punishable item in the Statutes is a section about protesting indicates that the University of Chicago is targeting protests for repression.

The University Statutes are the foundational document for the structure of the University. Yet the Statutes have no mention of academic freedom and freedom of speech, or due process, or the right to dissent and protest. The Statutes do not mention a word about campus disciplinary processes or rules, with the sole exception of Statute 21, which presumably was adopted with the goal of suppressing campus protests. (This is like taking the US Constitution, removing the Bill of Rights, and then inserting an article banning disruptive protests against the government.)

What the University of Chicago needs to do is add statements about freedom to its Statutes, delete Statute 21 completely, and then fix its campus code of conduct to remove broad regulations on free speech and protest on campus.