Northwestern And University Of Chicago Debate Free Speech | WBEZ
Skip to main content

WBEZ News

Local Universities Grapple With Limits Of Free Speech

It was a sunny, frigid February afternoon on Northwestern University’s campus when a few dozen students marched toward the administration building, their breath visible as they chanted.

“Hey hey! Ho ho!” the group chanted, “Kanazawa has got to go!”  

The students were calling for Northwestern to remove a visiting scholar, Satoshi Kanazawa, from campus. He’s a professor from the London School of Economics who is stationed at Northwestern for a year while on sabbatical. He’s published scientifically debunked papers with titles like “Why are Black Women Less Attractive than Other Women?” and “Are all Women Essentially Prostitutes?”

Despite student protests and petitions asking for his removal, the administration said Kanazawa could remain on campus for the rest of the year.

Why? Academic freedom.

Northwestern said Kanazawa’s ideas are protected under the First Amendment, which protects speech even if it’s considered hateful. He’s also protected under the long-held university tradition that all ideas should be up for debate on campus.

“Protection doesn't mean we sit by and accept them,” Jonathan Holloway, the university provost, said. “But that if we disagree with them, we mount an academic case why those ideas are bad. That’s what a university should be doing.”

But many students at Northwestern, other area schools and around the country are challenging their university administration’s unequivocal commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Some students, especially left-leaning ones, criticize the blanket adherence to free expression if it creates an environment where other students feel excluded, uncomfortable or unable to learn.

“There are always trade-offs in our ethics,” said Kalonji Nzinga, a post-doctoral researcher at Northwestern who attended the protest last month. “They have doubled down on the idea that academic freedom will be the … sole ethic that is important.”

He said Northwestern students want to redefine that idea so it’s “inclusive to many cultural groups or many ethnic groups.”  

Two recent incidents — the one at Northwestern, the other at the University of Chicago — illustrate what happens when students push back against long-standing university traditions.

“It’s a tired argument”

When Holloway learned Kanazawa was on Northwestern’s campus, he said he wasn’t happy. After investigating, he learned the psychology department, which approved Kanazawa’s request, does not properly evaluate visiting scholars. If he’d been properly vetted, it’s unlikely Kanazawa would’ve been invited, Holloway said.

But Kanazawa isn’t teaching or conducting research. He only has an office and access to Northwestern’s resources.

And now that he’s on campus, Holloway argued removing him would set a dangerous precedent. If he removes a professor whose ideas he disagrees with, what’s to stop the next provost from doing the same thing?

“That's too much authority to invest in one person,” he said. “Students don't quite understand that aspect of it.”

Students aren’t buying it.  

“Someone is purporting scientific racism in 2019, and we’re all going to say, ‘Oh, it's unfortunate, but it’s academic freedom,’” said Allena Berry, a graduate student at Northwestern. “It's a tired argument.”

Kate McGee/WBEZ
Protesting Northwestern students say academic freedom shouldn't protect a controversial visiting scholar.

Free speech dividing lines

These types of debates are playing out at universities across the country. Progressive students are arguing for changes to academic freedom that foster equity, while conservative students say they are being censored by liberal-leaning universities.

Last fall, conservative activists from the group Turning Point USA accused DePaul University of censorship after they said the group could not speak on campus.

“The left hates the idea there are other ideas,” activist Charlie Kirk wrote on Twitter. “They DENIED us because they say we say ‘potentially violent’ things. Hey DePaul, your fascism is showing.”

Historically, the political left was more likely to fight for free expression of opinions on campuses, said Geoffrey Stone, a well-known University of Chicago law professor who is a strong proponent of campus free speech.

“We would not have had a Civil Right movement, a women's rights movement, gay rights movement if we hadn't had a strong national commitment to freedom of speech.” Short of harassment or direct threats, he said all ideas should be open for sharing.

Stone said conservatives have traditionally opposed free speech on college campuses, despite recent instances where they’ve been excluded from speaking. But he said he believes conservative groups are being hypocritical in their indignation of censorship.

“For example, if the the head of Planned Parenthood was invited to speak at a Catholic University, I'd rather suspect Donald Trump would not be insisting that they allowed that person to come,” Stone said.

President Donald Trump last month said he wanted to withhold funding from schools that are perceived to have infringed upon free speech rights.

Photo provided by University of Chicago
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone is a nationally known proponent of free speech and campus free speech.

Universities argue that’s a bad idea. They say they should handle these situations themselves.

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer published an open letter responding to Trump’s comments, calling them misguided.

“A committee in Washington passing judgment on the speech policies and activities of educational institutions, judgments that may change according to who is in power and what policies they wish to promulgate, would be a profound threat to open discourse on campus,” Zimmer wrote. “In fact, it would reproduce in Washington exactly the type of on-campus ‘speech committee’ that would be a natural and dangerous consequence of the position taken by many advocating for the limitation of discourse on campuses.”

Challenging the “Chicago Principles”

The University of Chicago prides itself on its long-standing tradition of unequivocal support of free speech on campus.

In 2014, the school reaffirmed its support in a statement known as the Chicago Principles, where it said it’s not a university’s role to shield students from ideas they disagree with. And in 2016, the school made news for sending a letter to incoming freshmen saying the school didn’t support “trigger warnings” that alert students of sensitive content or creating “safe spaces.”

But free speech issues are bubbling up there, too.

Students recently protested the use of the n-word by a white law school professor during class to make a point on the fighting-words doctrine. The word was used by Geoffrey Stone, the proponent of campus free speech. Because of his prominence, the story made national news in higher education circles.

In an op-ed in the college newspaper, student David Raban said the law school should revoke the professor’s teaching privileges if he continues to use the word.

And last week, the Black Law Students Association held an impromptu dialogue with Stone to explain their issues with the use of the n-word by a white professor. After speaking with the students about using that word, he said he’d changed his views.

“Listening to these student persuaded me, at least at this point in time and history, that using the word is more detrimental than beneficial,” Stone said.

Stone pointed to the conversation with students as a great example of how free speech should work: the students presented their argument, he was persuaded and changed his mind without being censored.

“Free speech is not free”

Still, Stone said this doesn’t mean he’ll stop using the world in all contexts. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education after the dialogue with students, he continued to use the word to explain what happened in class.  

The university also defended his broad academic freedom, saying in a statement that faculty have the freedom to choose what ideas to discuss in the classroom and how they express those ideas

But students are pushing back.

Provided photo
The Black Law Students Association at the University of Chicago protested the use of the n-word by a law professor.

“You can’t purport diversity and inclusion and then fail to foster an environment where students from all background and demographics can learn without feeling isolated or targeted,” Black Law Students Association President Amiri Lampley said.

This week, the Black Law Students Association said in a letter to the dean that they would not participate in the upcoming accepted student weekend in April, given the university's “neutral stance” on this issue in the name of academic freedom.

“We understand the contours of freedom of speech and the value it can add to the marketplace of ideas,” the BLSA wrote in a letter to the law school dean obtained by WBEZ. “However, free speech is not free, and as it is currently applied, the university’s free speech policy, the “Chicago Principles,” leaves black students bearing the costs.”

“This silence has manifested a culture where a black student’s right to learn, engage, and excel is overshadowed by the need to preserve the interest of the oppressor’s unequivocal right to speak freely,” the BLSA wrote.

Lampley said it always falls to students of color to explain why and how this kind of speech can be harmful, which places an additional burden on students of color that white students do not carry.

The association urged the law school to reassess its commitment to the university’s free speech policy.

In a statement, Thomas Miles, dean of the UChicago Law School, said he appreciates students raising these issues. And, in a letter to all law students, Miles praised the BLSA students for holding the deeply personal dialogue with Stone.  

“We know there is much work to be done to ensure that the law school community is welcoming to all students and responsive to such concerns,” Miles said in the  statement, adding that he invited the BLSA leadership to meet with him to discuss these issues further.

Lampley said this is just one of many battles she has to fight to create a campus where all students feel comfortable speaking freely. She thinks schools hide behind the freedom of expression instead of prioritizing equity and diversity.

“The freedom to speak freely will never protect us the way it has our white counterparts,” Lampley said. “We actually have something to lose, whether that’s a seat at the table in corporate America, or a perpetual reputation as emotional or angry. We, unlike Professor Stone and others, will not receive accolades for our free exchange of ideas.”

She said that’s one thing freedom of expression doesn’t take into account, on or off campus.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X