The force of argument
Don M. Randel considers issues of free speech and intellectual community.
debate. We take our right to it as an article of faith on this campus, and we
think that, among other things, it sets us apart-for the better-from other institutions.
But the world's troubles in the past year have compelled us, once again, to reflect
on what we are prepared to tolerate, if not encourage, under the heading of rambunctious
debate. Are there limits? If so, how would we define and enforce them?
recent book edited by former provost Geoffrey Stone and his friend and colleague
Lee Bollinger (now president of Columbia University) points out that the doctrine
of free speech in this country is really the invention of the first part of the
20th century and that it has been on the move ever since-always better at deciding
matters in hindsight than at foreseeing what might need to be decided. Geof puts
some of the questions as follows: "To what extent must a society, to be true
to its commitment to free expression, tolerate speech that insults and degrades
a group or individual on the basis of race, religion, gender, or ethnic origin?
On the other hand, to what extent may a society, in furtherance of its commitment
to individual dignity, censor unpleasant racist or sexist or homophobic speech
because it offends, or even deeply offends, others? Can this possibly be a principled
basis on which to censor ideas and opinions in a society committed to open public
Setting aside the question of
what ought to be prosecuted in a court of law, how should we in the University
community think about such issues, and how should we attempt to carry on our daily
affairs in relation to them? We have a set of rather well established principles,
some of them expressed in the Kalven
Report. A central principle articulated there is that "[a] university,
if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable
to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community."
From this it follows that the University does not take collective positions on
social and political issues, for to do so would be to intrude on the right of
individual members of the University community to hold divergent views. "In
brief, it is a community that cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions
on public issues."
At the same time, individuals'
rights to their own views must be protected. As the Student Manual states, "Acts
of violence and explicit threats of violence directed at a particular individual
that compromise that individual's safety or ability to function within the University
setting are direct affronts to the University's values and warrant intervention
by University officials." This is the University's blanket policy, and it
applies to any and all individuals and groups. Thus, despite some recent assertions
to the contrary, neither I nor the University has issued such a statement with
respect to any particular group (see "Chicago
Journal," -Ed.). Nor will I, as president, lend the University's name
to the support of any particular group, institution, or cause.
we must guard against more than physical violence. Provost Richard Saller has
elaborated on this issue and on the need for civility in our debates: "We
see this kind of civility not as a requirement, but as a virtue, and therefore
worth pursuing. In short, while we sometimes treat ideas here rather roughly,
we strive to treat others with the civility we would like to receive ourselves."
are a community, as the Kalven Report insists throughout. This entails a decent
respect for one another and even a degree of trust. No set of rules or codes of
behavior can ever fully capture everything that respect and trust require. And
for this purpose, the body of legal opinion surrounding the First Amendment at
any moment will always be too crude. The law is simply not capable of fixing or
ensuring everything that is required in rewarding human relations. After all,
there are many laws that govern marriage, too, but none can capture, let alone
enforce, what most of us believe is essential in a marriage. Maintaining this
community is hard work, and each of us must assume some personal responsibility
In a world of increasing tensions and heated
differences, we will sometimes be accused of bias or even rank prejudice for tolerating
a wide spectrum of views. But the response to views that one finds distasteful
is not in the first instance to attempt to suppress them but instead to answer
them with the force of argument. The University exists to make possible this kind
of exchange and not to take sides in it.
when accusations against the University are rooted in outright distortions and
misinformation, our response must assert the facts and encourage reasoned debate
rather than descend to words and actions that might weaken the fabric of a community
in which debate-even rambunctious debate-is essential to what we are.