A recent eruption of debate over the so-called “Chicago Principles” at the University has encouraged both strong opinions and dismissive eye-rolling. An affirmation of the principles has re-emerged on the docket for faculty meetings this semester, with a vote against adoption concluding only a few weeks ago.
The guiding principles were originally adopted by the University of Chicago in 2015 following a report made by the Committee on Freedom of Expression. The report was in response to students at various universities attempting to prevent controversial commencement speakers. The principles are an ostensibly noble aim to protect freedom of expression on college campuses. They have thus far been adopted by 80 universities across the United States, including American University, Columbia, Georgetown and Gettysburg College.
A group of faculty proposed the University’s incorporation of the principles for a faculty vote in 2017. The motion was formally tabled, partly because various faculty members expressed interest in hearing what Professors Robert George and Cornel West had to say about the subject at a talk later in the semester. The two professors are diametrically opposed ideologically, engaging in conversations that are meant to embody the healthy, civil discourse the Chicago Principles supposedly intend to encourage.
The principles resurfaced this semester contemporaneously with a Zoom webinar on freedom of expression at the University – “Free Expression: ‘Ray Bucknell” – held on Tuesday Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. and featuring George and West. The motion was up for contention on Feb. 1 during the monthly faculty meeting with Professors Paul Siewers (English – Literary Studies), Chris Ellis (Political Science), Peter Jansson (Electrical Engineering), Joe Murray (Education), and Janice Traflet (Accounting and Financial Management) as its co-sponsors.
Professors have generally remained in line with the general Chicago Principles at the University, but with some alleged transgressions. A few sections deserve individual treatment and scrutiny. Firstly––
“The University should fully respect and support the freedom of all members of the University community to discuss any problem that presents itself [and] it should not be the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Note that the professors who support the passing of the motion are those that have frequently also supported BPALC speakers. These have consistently proven the most controversial events at the University, notably those of Heather Mac Donald (2019) and Jordan Peterson (2021). The program has been supported by the Open Discourse Coalition (ODC), which has supplied financial backing to BPALC events after the University stopped funding it in 2019. The University still allows ODC to rent the spaces for BPALC speakers, limiting the extent to which cessation of funding affected its programming.
Thus the University has made no notable attempt to “shield individuals from ideas and opinions” at all; indeed, every speaker scheduled by BPALC has been allowed to come to campus. The need to accept these Principles formally seems a bizarre and unnecessary triviality.
This appeared to be the general faculty perspective as well. The motion was tabled at the Feb. 1 meeting simply because there was limited time, but an additional meeting held this past Tuesday saw it “postpone[d] indefinitely.” Instead of further tabling the motion, it was deemed by the majority of the faculty to have been unsuitable in the first place, and cannot be brought to the floor again in its current state. In other words, the majority of faculty thought the proposed Principles were useless in their current state, and would not change the way in which the University addresses “unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive” perspectives.
In the face of Principles appearing pointless, what was the purpose of its introduction in the first place? One provision is quite illuminating:
“Although members of the University community should be free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus […] they should not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
No clarity is provided on how to interpret the vague standard of “obstruction” or “interference,” and the limits placed on how “members of the University community” can express opposition could easily be used to infringe on freedom of expression – which the motion claims to defend. When Heather Mac Donald arrived on campus, students protested outside Bucknell Hall, lining the sidewalks with signage (and potentially triggering the nebulous “obstruction” category forbidden by the Principles).
The re-emergence of the Principles at the University thus serves as, basically, a façade to limit student demonstration in protest to views that they oppose, disagree with or justly find deeply offensive. None of its other provisions are meaningfully transgressed by the University. Supposedly “in accord with university values expressed in the Bucknell mission statement: to support different cultures and diverse perspectives” through their mission to “support the freedom of all members of the University community to discuss any problem that presents itself,” the motion functionally restricts the very act of free assembly.