A provocative letter sent last week to all incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago (Ill.) recently became the center of a national conversation about freedom of expression. The letter, which describes the University’s freedom of expression policy, condemned “trigger warnings,” “canceling controversial speakers” and “the creation of intellectual safe spaces.”
The letter has generated both praise and criticism nationwide, while prompting a broader conversation about freedom of expression on college campuses. While the letter is not announcing policy change, it reiterates the University’s already stated and practiced policy regarding academic freedom of expression. In addition to the letter, every incoming student received a booklet intended to serve as a primer to the University’s “history of debate, and even scandal, resulting from [their] commitment to academic freedom,” the letter said.
Last semester’s “Trump chalkings” catapulted Emory into the center of a similar national conversation about the role of free speech on college campuses, and at Emory in particular. On March 22, about 40 Emory students protested chalkings around campus that referred to the current Republican presidential nominee.
“Emory is committed to open expression,” Interim Dean of Emory College Michael A. Elliott said. “I think you can see that in how the school has handled things in the past. The cornerstone of the liberal arts is the free and inclusive exchange of ideas, and the faculty and students of Emory show up every day trying hard to incorporate that ideal.”
In addition to the chalkings last year, Elliott referenced Emory’s defense of Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt, in the face of a defamation lawsuit from a Holocaust denier.
Elliott also noted that Emory came to the aid of Thomas J. J. Altizer after his role in the “Is God Dead?” series of articles in Time magazine led to national outcry in the 1960s. More recently, Emory defended the selection of Ben Carson as commencement speaker in 2012. Carson, a former Republican presidential candidate, drew criticism from the Emory science community because he does not believe in evolution, although they never asked Emory to rescind his invitation to speak.
Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair said Emory’s and the University of Chicago’s policies are similar, but he considers it misleading to call safe spaces an infringement on freedom of expression. They are necessary, rather than obstructive, to create a campus truly amicable to freedom of expression, he said.
“The idea that safe spaces somehow inhibit open expression is a flawed argument,” Nair said. “Safe spaces, in my mind, at least how they operate at Emory, encourage open expression, debate and dialogue because they … empower students to be able to participate in larger conversations.”
Student Government Association (SGA) President Max Zoberman reiterated Nair’s stance.
“Safe spaces are places of identity, security, peace of mind and have almost nothing to do with intellectual sheltering,” Zoberman said. “Safe spaces were not originally in the context in issues of freedom of expression; they were literal spaces to provide support for students.”
However, this view is not held universally among the Emory community. College senior Josh Goodman said that Emory’s failure to condemn both safe spaces and trigger warnings amounts to a restriction on their academic freedom.
“I would like to see Emory take a stand for all students to believe and express whatever they may feel,” Goodman said. “I would like to see Emory stand up publicly for freedom of speech, especially because the school has failed to do so in the past.”
College senior Anais Hussung stated that trigger warnings in no way impede freedom of expression.
“When universities and others talk about [trigger warnings] as an infringement on freedom, it seems like a non sequitur,” Hussung said. “[They] just let people know what is going to be talked about so they can take care of themselves. The whole debate feels contrived.”
Trigger warnings, Hussung said, are a measure to accommodate people with trauma.
Cahoon Family Professor of American History Patrick Allitt said he understands the history behind the notion of trigger warnings and safe spaces. He also noted that such complaints have the tendency to limit speech.
“Censorship, even for a good cause, is still censorship and is likely to cause more harm than good,” Allitt said.
At Emory, open expression is handled by the University Senate Committee for Open Expression, comprised of faculty, staff and students. The Committee’s purpose is “to promote and protect the rights of community members related to issues involving speech, debate, open expression and protest,” according to its website.
In response to the Trump chalkings, the Committee issued a 12-page report on whether the messages were protected by Emory’s Open Expression Policy. The report asserted that the policy protects both the content of the messages and the right of members of the Emory community to chalk on campus, although it did condemn the vandalism of various other messages across campus.
Chairman of the Open Expression Committee and Emory Law School Associate Professor Alexander Volokh said that he does not believe the Open Expression Policy bans or demands trigger warnings and safe spaces.
“The policy does not address trigger warnings or safe spaces,” Volokh said. “We are both free to have them and free to not have them. The policy, as it stands, forbids harassment and allows groups to meet in places where they can discuss important issues. Everyone has the right to express their social and political views in a respectful manner, but that doesn’t mean that people have to listen.”
Volokh likened the policy to allowing people to put on “headphones” to blot out sound. He concluded that, overall, Emory maintains protections for freedom of expression, a sentiment echoed by Nair, Elliott and others.
“[Through its Open Expression Policy], Emory has voluntarily committed itself to freedom of expression,” Volokh said. “We have the equivalent of First Amendment rights on campus.”
Allitt, who teaches American intellectual history, noted that most of his classes require confronting ideas that seem different or foreign compared to one’s own.
“I think Emory takes freedom of expression very seriously,” Allitt said. “I have never been intimidated to say or teach what I think, despite the nature of my classes.”
While the University may do nothing to inhibit freedom of expression, Zoberman said that he fears something other than administration may be hindering freedom of expression.
“There is this sense of tension and anxiousness where students have things to say but are scared to say [them] because of [the situation] potentially flaring up,” Zoberman said. “The [administration] has made it clear [that it] will continue to protect our rights to express ourselves in any way we like. Students feel protected by the school, but not necessarily [by] the student body.”
While Nair and Elliott believe that Emory sufficiently protects freedom of expression, they both noted that the entire Emory community should be further educated on Emory’s Open Expression Policy. Elliott described the fight for freedom of expression as a process, rather than a one-time job.
“Speech on campus, it’s not something you can annunciate once, it’s a process,” Elliott said. “You are always continuing to build on it.”
Nair reaffirmed Emory’s maintenance of a strong policy. “I think what we need to enhance is the education about it, and a greater understanding about the principles of our policy,” he said.
Hayley Silverstein contributed reporting.