Off-the-shelf models of university free speech need local packaging

The Chicago Principles are powerful partly because they are linked to institutional history and values, say Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone

March 2, 2021
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Judgements about academic freedom and freedom of speech are implicated in myriad small interactions that occur daily in universities. A teacher conducting a classroom discussion that becomes heated is one obvious example; students assembling to hear a controversial lunchtime speaker is another. Other possible flashpoints include a discussion in a faculty meeting that turns highly critical of university governance; an academic engaging with a research partner who wants to limit the release of research results; or a dean or head of a research centre facing a complaint about a controversial speaker or an outspoken academic.

It is neither possible nor desirable for university leadership to be involved in these issues at every point. Nor can we realistically expect staff and students to make detailed reference to university policy on free speech and academic freedom in the course of day-to-day interactions.

What universities require is a culture of openness, based on a broad understanding of free speech and academic freedom. How is such a culture to be inculcated? We take inspiration from The University of Chicago – not from the specific details of the famous Chicago Principles but from the way they are given life within the institution.

The principles, drawn up in 2014 by a special committee, are a statement of the identity of that university. While they are much quoted in abstraction – being succinct, beautifully written and inspiring – it is not often noted that the committee’s report starts by recalling four key historical moments that affirmed the University of Chicago’s commitment to free speech, starting from the early 20th century and leading up to the present day.

The final paragraph of the report references former Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins’ observation that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university”. And it concludes: “The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our university’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.”

Read as a whole, then, the Chicago Principles are as much about the University of Chicago as they are about freedom of speech. They construct an identity for the university, and this identity is instilled in students throughout their time at the school. Famously, John Ellison, the dean of students at the College of the University of Chicago, wrote to incoming students in 2016 to remind them that a defining characteristic of the university is its “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression”. That practice has continued each year. More than the specifics of the statement, we are impressed by the way the university continuously engages with and reinforces its principles.

Chicago is not the only university to communicate with students in this way. Other college presidents in the US have also written or spoken to their students on the issue of freedom of speech. In 2018, the president of Princeton University asked students, faculty and staff to read Princeton politics professor Keith Whittington’s 2018 book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Freedom of Speech, over the summer break, in time to discuss it in the first semester.

How might other universities foster a culture that respects both academic freedom and free speech? Universities are best placed to decide on matters of tone and emphasis themselves. What is potentially so powerful about the strategies pursued at Chicago and Princeton is that they encourage members of a university community to embrace the values of a specific institution in its own context and history. Commitments to freedom of expression and academic freedom are not guaranteed. On the contrary, they are values that a university community must collectively imbue in all its members.

As well as the Chicago Principles, the other model of free speech policy most prominently pressed on universities in Australia is the “model code” produced in 2019 by the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers (popularly known as the French review). But we would expect Australian universities to adapt that, too, to their own specific contexts.

Speaking or writing to students and encouraging members of the university community to educate themselves is only the beginning of this process. We envision that universities can discuss these matters in many ways, and in many forums. We hope that Australian universities will take up this challenge in creative ways that draw on the history and values of their distinct identities. We hope, in doing so, that their subject will be academic freedom as well as freedom of speech. It is a commitment to these values in the hearts and minds of the university community, more than in any specific statement or policy, that would respect the inheritance and fulfil the promise of our universities.

Higher education institutions are not simply forums for the politics of society at large. They are not commercial institutions, nor are they instruments of government. They are special communities dedicated to teaching and research. Their challenges are many and complex, but we believe it is essential, and also possible, for them to remain faithful to the core ideals of the university, even in the modern globalised and commercialised age.

Carolyn Evans is vice-chancellor of Griffith University and Adrienne Stone is director of the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies at Melbourne Law School. This is an edited extract from their book, Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in Australia, published by La Trobe University Press on 2 March.

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