From Restrictive Speech Codes to Virtue-Signaling Statements: Is There a Better Way?

Academic Freedom, Professional Ethics

By: Allyson Mower

Does your institution have a speech code? And, if so, have you ever read your institution’s speech code? I read the speech policy of the University of Utah the other day in preparation for a committee meeting where our assignment was to help determine the implications of becoming a signatory of the Chicago Statement on Free Expression, which was issued in 2015. The U of U Speech Policy is straightforward, in my opinion, and not restrictive. The Chicago Statement, on the other hand, seems to address institutions that might have a restrictive policy, so I had to do some investigating to figure out the genesis and how it might work at an institution without a restrictive speech policy.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Free Speech Campus GuideAccording to the statement, the drafting committee convened in 2014 “in light of recent national events that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The statement does not mention what those national events were. In digging further to find out what those national events might be, I came across a precursor to the final committee report in UChicago News in 2012 as a single-authored piece by professor Geoffrey R. Stone, who later chaired the drafting committee. The opening phrase of the precursor statement is “[e]ighty years ago.” At the time of Professor Stone’s writing, that year would have been 1932, obviously not a recent year or event. The 2012 article goes on to tell the story of a student organization that had invited the presidential candidate at the time from the Communist Party to speak on campus and detailed the protests that followed. I could only surmise that this event somehow remained similar to whatever “recent national events” the final report alluded to in 2014.

In addition to the 2012 version I found, I also came across a separate organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which had initiated a campaign for college campuses across the United States to become signatories to the final report issued by the University of Chicago’s committee that same year (2015).

What was going on from 2012-2015 that spurred these activities? The statement does not make it clear so I did a little more research and found a 2012 op-ed written by Greg Lukianoff, an employee of FIRE. The op-ed discusses attempts by campus administrators to ensure civility and inclusiveness which ultimately had led to restrictive speech codes. That brought me back to the University of Utah’s speech policy. In my re-reading for writing this post, I paid close attention to overly restrictive feature. The policy designates free speech facilities as schedulable spaces which could be deemed as restrictive, but the policy also denotes that such facilities do not limit the right of free speech in other areas of campus. Perhaps there’s been an issue of interpretation of free speech “zones,” something Greg Lukianoff focuses on in the op-ed.

In addition to the lack of specificity about relevant national events, the statement also fails to distinguish between free speech and “free and open discourse.” In my opinion, free and open discourse is different from free speech. Discourse is two-way. Free speech events are not always two-way, at least not in the example of protests and rallies mentioned in the Chicago Statement. Free speech events are a kind of discourse, but not the kind the Chicago committee was probably charged with exploring given the use of the word “open.” It seems to me that free and open discourse simply means communication. And communication will always be complicated, especially in a formal setting like a classroom. Won’t the very human emotion of fear be a near-constant complicating factor? Fear of disagreeing, fear of uncertainty, fear of embarrassment.

My question then becomes, can a statement such as the Chicago Statement address these fears? They certainly don’t help alleviate mine. If I’m not even sure yet what I think about something or I’ve not yet developed a strong enough opinion to express or had practice in debating that topic, a final committee report or statement won’t help me get there. Instead, I think having people around you who are not afraid of differences of opinion and who are comfortable fostering fruitful disagreement among near-perfect strangers — as members of a campus community tend to be — can go a much longer way than a virtue-signaling statement. I would want to know more about how the University of Chicago and FIRE signatories have created the conditions for in-depth thought and strong disagreement on their campuses and to foster the ability of employees and students to communicate, debate, disagree, and think deeply. Isn’t that the definition of “free and open discourse”?

It’s definitely not necessary to go as far as Harvard and require the signing of a “niceness pledge” as Greg Lukianoff calls it in his 2012 op-ed and perhaps that was a “recent national event” the Chicago Statement hoped to address. But there must be something in-between an institutionally-coerced pledge and a removed-from-the individual committee statement. I especially like Kate Lechtenberg’s approach to transparency as a teacher. Of course, you know this is where I also say that academic librarians have a role. Like professors, we have a professional duty to encourage the development of informed opinions. We also have the capability of fostering open dialogue in a low-stakes way — no grades, no tests, no regimented course of study. We have the added ability of acting as community builders in our service mission to bring those from all disciplines into our buildings. On a university or college campus, that seems like an effective option to create the necessary conditions for thought and to foster the ability of employees and students to communicate, even if it’s to disagree.


Allyson MowerAllyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.

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