UNC faculty pushes importance of free speech by adopting "Chicago principles"

Kristen Marion, center, and other students march on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus last year in protest of the university’s Silent Sam Confederate statue.
Kristen Marion, center, and other students march on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus last year in protest of the university’s Silent Sam Confederate statue. jwall@newsobserver.com

UNC-Chapel Hill's Faculty Council on Friday adopted the "Chicago principles," a well-known statement of commitment to free expression, in part to combat what faculty say is a perceived problem with free speech on campus.

The vote was 28 to 4, with one abstention, to adopt the principles, which are a set of ideals that do not have the enforcement power of policy.

Friday's action followed a new free speech policy passed last year by the UNC Board of Governors. The policy, mandated by the legislature, spells out possible punishments – warning, suspension, even expulsion – for protesters who disrupt others at the state’s public universities. The law that required a policy was based on model legislation from the conservative Goldwater Institute, which has pushed to protect speakers who have at times been shouted down on U.S. college campuses.

The so-called Chicago principles were first put forth by the University of Chicago three years ago and have since been embraced by dozens of other universities, including Princeton and Purdue. In 2016, a University of Chicago dean wrote to incoming freshmen, touting the principles and informing students that the university did not support speech limitations in the form of safe spaces or trigger warnings about difficult topics.

The principles say, in part: "[T]he ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community."

The statement goes on to say that speech can be restricted if it violates the law, defames someone or constitutes a threat, harassment, invasion of privacy or confidentiality. And it stipulates that the university can regulate speech in time, place and manner if there are public safety interests, for example.

The idea to adopt the Chicago principles came about when a UNC business professor and several students contacted faculty leaders about it. A working group was convened to consider the issue and consulted with University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, who led the committee that first authored the principles.

On Friday, there was some debate among UNC faculty about whether the statement was really necessary. Leaders of the working group admitted that there was no survey of students or faculty about their thoughts and concerns on free speech.

"There is a perception that there is an issue with free speech on college campuses," said Mimi Chapman, a professor of social work who led the working group. "That perception is important, and as a faculty, sometimes we have to deal with the perception as much as reality. I believe that these principles help us do that."

Chapman said there is a prevalent idea "that somehow faculty are shutting down speech in some way."

"Frankly, I think that we, as a faculty, and frankly faculties around the country, probably want to reclaim this conversation," Chapman said.

Hassan Melehy, a French professor, brought up a 2009 speech by former U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo, which was shut down by student protesters in a disruption that included police using pepper spray. He said he had been "unequivally opposed" to the shouting down of Tancredo, and the principles seem to address that issue.

"However, I'm concerned that certain forms of protest may be quelled because of this language," Melehy added, citing another speech where students silently walked out — in his mind, an acceptable protest.

Chapman said the principles do nothing to enforce or regulate anything but merely set a tone for free speech in the campus public square. It does not apply to campus groups or classrooms.

One professor suggested that research be done to determine whether there is a documented free speech problem.

Others said they were concerned about aligning UNC too closely with the 2016 Chicago letter, which decried safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Chapman said the working group only recommended adopting the principles, not the letter.

The document approved Friday includes UNC-customized language surrounding the Chicago principles.

The ending says, "Through calm waters and rough, the mission of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is advanced by our commitment to aspirational principles that guide our public conversation no matter how unsettling. By reaffirming a commitment to full and open inquiry, robust debate, and civil discourse we also affirm the intellectual rigor and open-mindedness that our community may bring to any forum where difficult, challenging, and even disturbing ideas are presented. At Carolina, we have long known that light and liberty are the essential tools that allow problems to be seen, ideas to be tested, and solutions to be found. At a moment of deep societal division and flux, we embrace these truths once again."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill