COMMENTARY: U. should adopt ‘Chicago Statement’

Our dear University has found itself in the news over the past few months. No, not because of our unfortunate athletics record or the unreliability of the bus system, but because of its policies with free speech. From the investigation of James Livingston, a professor in the Department of History, for a Facebook post to the deplatforming of a University-sponsored talk, it is clear that Rutgers problems with free speech are endemic to the great amount of ambiguity and interpretation of present speech codes. Though this might seem to be too complicated to resolve, the University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression has already provided us with a format for the formal commitment that, "guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn." In response to these recent controversies, the current administration should adopt the so-called “Chicago Statement” to bolster First Amendment protections on campus and facilitate a vibrant culture centered around the free exchange of ideas.

Rutgers maintains an unpredictable and inconsistent track record when it comes to protected speech. In 2002, the University decided to ban the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship from campus because it required club leaders to express values consistent with the group. In 2012, then-President Richard McCormick condemned a satirical article from The Medium, leading to an investigation into it as a so-called “bias incident." One might argue that these incidents were due to the opinions of the school’s leadership at the time, but it is often not the leaders themselves that decide to investigate and dole out punishments for these situations. Just a few months ago, the Office of Employment Equity decided that Livingston violated its discrimination policy by writing a private Facebook post complaining about gentrification. This decision was later reversed, but only because University President Robert L. Barchi remanded it back to the office to be reevaluated. As long as there is no formal code that delineates freedom of expression to the entirety of the Rutgers community, there is no guarantee that incidents of this sort will not repeat themselves. 

Moreover, it is the Rutgers policies themselves that infringe on our First Amendment rights. For example, the “Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment” cites “innuendo or other suggestive, offensive or derogatory comments or jokes about a protected group,” as forms of harassment. The problem with this is that the wording is incredibly vague. If one wished to express their opinion on a controversial religious or racial issue on social media, what would stop the University from reprimanding them for “harassment” toward one of the mentioned groups? In fact, this is exactly what happened to Livingston when he wrote a rant about gentrification in Harlem. Additionally, the Division of Student Affairs “Bias Prevention” guide defines a “bias incident” as a “verbal, written, physical or psychological (act) that threatens or harms a person or group on the basis of ...” more than 15 distinct categories. Again, this rule is so ambiguous that even the predominantly-Jewish Medium was investigated due to an obviously satirical article that they attributed to a professed Zionist student. The idea that any person or group could be punished for private opinions illustrates that the rules themselves are too nebulous to be properly applied.

The best way to ensure that these fundamental rights are protected is by clearly embedding them into the school’s policies through formally approving the "Chicago Statement." Barchi’s statements on free expression demonstrate that the current administration is attentive to defending the right to uncensored free speech, but this is not enough. These policies will vary with leadership, so we are merely lucky that our current president is in favor of safeguarding First Amendment principles. By prohibiting administrators from “obstruct(ing) or otherwise interfer(ing)” with forms of expression that they might disagree with, the "Chicago Statement" demonstrates a steadfast devotion to fostering an environment that is tolerant to heterodox ideas and divisive issues. Formally instituting these principles would offer both students and faculty the freedom to express all sorts of ideas without fear of retribution. 

Of course, there are well-articulated arguments against free speech on campus, but as the civil rights movement and student activism of the 1960s proves, the right to express and listen to controversial ideas is essential to social progress. Especially in the current political environment, these are difficult conversations to have. But, if Rutgers truly wants to maintain its “Revolutionary” foundation and principles, it should illustrate to both its students and faculty that it is indefinitely committed to the freedom of expression by officially adopting the "Chicago Statement." In the end, the only way to properly address polarizing issues is not to block them out and pretend they do not exist, but to fully engage in these discussions and work toward a common understanding.

Isaac Margolis is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and history.


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