UChicago Says Free Speech Is Sacred. Some Students See Hypocrisy.


The University of Chicago has built a brand around the idea that its students should be unafraid to encounter ideas or opinions they disagree with.

To drum that in, the school provides incoming students with copies of its 2014 free-speech declaration, known as the Chicago statement, which states that freedom of expression is an “essential element” of its culture.

And the university has long adhered to a policy of institutional neutrality, which strongly discourages it from divesting from companies for political reasons, or from making statements aligning it with a social cause. That neutrality, the university argues, allows for a robust, unencumbered exchange of ideas.

Many professors swell with pride talking about how the school’s commitment to these principles has endured through two world wars, Vietnam and, more recently, the tumult of the Trump administration. And more than 100 institutions have adopted or endorsed similar principles.

But the University of Chicago’s image as the citadel of free speech is being tested again — this time over an encampment on the central quad, which protesters of Israel’s war in Gaza have refused to leave for more than a week.

The university has allowed dozens of tents to stay up, even though they violate a policy against erecting structures in public spaces. The school had wanted to show “the greatest leeway possible for free expression,” said Paul Alivisatos, the university president.

Now, citing the disruption to student life and a degradation of civility on campus, the university wants the encampment gone.

So far, negotiations between the two sides have gone nowhere. The university said in a statement on Sunday night that the talks had been suspended.

Student protesters view the administration’s demand as hypocritical.

“The university continuously batters this point about free speech,” said Youssef Hasweh, a fourth-year political science major, during a rally on the quad on Saturday.

He said the school tells the protesters, “‘we are giving you your First Amendment rights, and we’re one of the only universities to do that, so we’re the good guys.’”

But, as he sees it, the Chicago speech principles are a fig leaf. “They’re kind of just using that to shut us down.”

Across the country, the encampments have forced administrators and students to grapple with the outer limits of free speech. The tents, students argue, are a form of speech, but to administrators, they violate rules about physical space and campus disruption.

Should academic institutions ignore their own policies against disruptive activity for the sake of speech, even if many Jewish students feel their very identity is under attack? When does a protest dominate a campus so much that it drowns out opposing views? And what if encampments overwhelm student life, with drums and chants affecting the ability to study for finals?

Some schools have reached agreements with protesters that have lowered the temperature, at least temporarily. And students have dismantled their encampments.

But as Chicago’s leaders look for a way to bring the tents down, they may not find many palatable options. Calling in the police risks the kind of mayhem that no school president wants occurring on their watch. And a quad full of tents as families arrive for graduation isn’t ideal either.

But in some ways, the argument over encampments is as much about the culture of debate and disagreement as it is about free speech. Students who came of age learning about concepts like safe spaces are now accusing universities of silencing them for conduct that has been called antisemitic.

Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the university, oversaw the 2014 Chicago statement, and said that some nuance has been lost. While the First Amendment protects the right for people to “say things that scare other people,” Mr. Stone said, “what you want to tell students and citizens is: You should try not to do that. You should communicate your message in a civil and respectful manner.”

The quad at the University of Chicago pulsed all weekend with the din of protest. The encampment, a mini-village of more than 100 tents, is just a few steps away from the building that houses the president’s office.

At any given time, the area teemed with dozens of students, who seemed to be enjoying unseasonably warm spring weather. Bob Dylan blasted from loudspeakers. Chants that many Jews consider a call to wipe out the state of Israel — “Free, free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — rang out. Chalked slogans covered the sidewalks: “Staying invested is a political statement, not neutrality” and “Chinese Queer Feminists for Palestine.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson even paid a visit.

Tension was evident, however, with some students wearing masks or kaffiyehs to cover their faces. Protesters held up blankets to prevent photographers from taking pictures. Some Jewish students walked through the quad on their way home from services, passing signs that read “Globalize the Intifada” and “Jews Say Ceasefire Now.”

When student protesters first set up the encampment on April 29, the university president, Dr. Alivisatos, sent a clear message to the demonstrators that his leniency was not indefinite.

But students say they will stay on the quad until their demands are met, which span a range of issues that are both related to and tangential to the Palestinian cause. These include pulling out of investments that fund military operations in Israel; stating that a genocide and “scholasticide,” the destruction of Palestinian universities, are taking place in Gaza; disbanding the campus police; and ending construction of new buildings in the surrounding neighborhood, as a way to stop gentrification.

Those appear to be nonstarters with the administration because of Chicago’s neutrality policy. It has resisted such pressure before. As other prominent universities heeded students’ demands in the 1980s to divest from companies that did business in South Africa, the University of Chicago was a notable exception.

But the university has also been inconsistent, said Mr. Hasweh, the student protester, pointing to its statement of support for those affected by the invasion of Ukraine.

For some protesters, Chicago’s vaunted free speech doctrine seems like a dusty relic, irrelevant to what is happening in the world, especially when it comes to the war in Gaza, which for them, amounts to genocide.

Speech principles are relatable to many students and faculty in “the way that the value statements of Procter & Gamble are related to the employees of Procter & Gamble,” said Anton Ford, an associate professor of philosophy who was at the encampment. “We didn’t vote on them. The students didn’t vote on them. Nobody asked us about our opinion on them.”

Callie Maidhof, who teaches global studies with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is advising protesters as they negotiate with the administration. She said the university was “strategically using” its stance on neutrality as a way to clamp down on the demonstrations.

“I hear people saying, ‘I like free speech, but this has gone too far,’” Dr. Maidhof said. “But where is the line when you’re talking about 40,000 people killed? What could be considered too far?”

On Friday, four days after the encampment started, the university sent a sobering message to the demonstrators.

“The encampment cannot continue,” Dr. Alivisatos wrote in a statement. It had created a “systematic disruption of campus,” he continued. “Protesters are monopolizing areas of the Main Quad at the expense of other members of our community. Clear violations of policies have only increased.”

He added, “The encampment protesters have flouted our policies rather than working within them.”

The university has accused student demonstrators of engaging in the kind of activity that flies in the face of Chicago’s culture — including shouting down counter demonstrators and destroying an installation of Israeli flags. The student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, reported that at one point over the weekend, demonstrators used a projector to display a profane insult to Dr. Alivisatos on the main administration building.

The tent village was a sprawling and humbling reminder that even an institution dedicated to nurturing a culture of agreeable disagreement cannot quell the outrage that has led to raucous demonstrations, occupations of buildings, graduation disruptions and arrests at colleges across the country.

“If someone were to design a stress test to reveal all the of fault lines and unresolved issues in higher education among student activism, this is it,” said Jamie Kalven, a journalist who has extensively studied the University of Chicago’s history with free speech and protest.

Mr. Kalven’s father, Harry Kalven, chaired the committee that established the university’s position on political neutrality in 1967. The impasse today, the son said, reflects how many students — on Chicago’s ivy-draped campus and beyond — do not share the school’s values when it comes to political expression.

“It’s really remarkable the degree to which young people are alienated from what I think of as the First Amendment tradition,” he said.

And the stalemate reflects the extent to which today’s combative political climate has also infected academia.

“The default setting is confrontation,” said Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes cooperation across religious faiths.

“What was the symbol of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?” Mr. Patel asked, referring to one of the most active civil rights groups of the 1960s. “It was two hands clasped together.”

And today what is the symbol that many groups seeking social and political change use? Mr. Patel answered: “The fist.”

The ability to engage productively with people who share different political views is something that Olivia Gross, a fourth-year undergraduate, wishes young people would learn to do more naturally.

“I came here to hear views that are different than mine,” she said in an interview. “That’s the point of coming to the University of Chicago. I want to know what you think and why you think it.”

But she said the current climate made that difficult sometimes.

Students at the encampment, she noted, had set up tents for a variety of different purposes — for welcoming protesters, for medical needs and for food.

“How nice would it be,” she mused, “to have a tent that invited dialogue across differences?”

Bob Chiarito contributed reporting.

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