IMAGE:  October 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 1
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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
The force of argument
President Don M. Randel considers issues of free speech and intellectual community.

Rambunctious 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?

A 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 discourse?"

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.

But 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."

We 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 for it.

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.

Even 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.




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