Chicago Principles protect unproductive discourse too

Julia Zaksek

The UT System administration is considering adopting a new free speech policy based on the Chicago Principles

The principles are an incredibly loose set of standards that, if adopted, would allow any form of speech — no matter how “offensive” or “immoral” — on campus without regulation or punishment by the University. 

While adopting a policy based on the Chicago Principles may seem like a triumph for free speech on campus, having such a policy is dangerous. The adoption of these principles will not protect students from hostile learning environments and will continue to encourage unproductive discussions. 

The University should protect free speech, but it also must make sure it protects its students and ensures differing ideas and views are shared in a productive way. UT should instead adopt a policy that can meet all three of these objectives. 

Some students fully support the policy, claiming it is the University’s duty to expose students to all speech even if it’s harmful or distressing. 

“The Chicago Principles are about including every voice on campus,” said Blake Simon, mechanical engineering graduate student. “A university is supposed to promote the exchange of ideas.” 

While all students have the right to free speech, students also deserve to feel safe, and their university must protect them. 

“Protecting all speech sounds good, like we’re really protecting the First Amendment,” said Sophia Garcia, government and philosophy junior. “But in reality, you cannot allow everything. There is speech that is a breach of peace and will incite violence.” 

UT isn’t immune to hate speech. Since 2016, there have been 11 incidents on campus involving white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups. In 2017, Austin had the most reported hate crimes of any city
in Texas. 

“Allowing hate speech normalizes hateful attitudes and beliefs, and it can incite violence,” Garcia said. “People think, ‘I can do this, I can say this and hold this sign and not be penalized. Okay, so what else can I do?’” 

Garcia said past incidents on campus, such as the “Catch an Immigrant Day” event planned in 2013 by the Young Conservatives of Texas, are proof that campus discourse can be hateful. YCT defended the event as an attempt to generate discussion about immigration and its effects on students’ lives. 

However, lacking the support of the University, it was eventually canceled. Under the Chicago Principles, though, Garcia says she fears such an event could be allowed or even encouraged. 

It’s a slippery slope from hate speech to hate crimes. 

“Something like ‘Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day’ could so easily become violent,” Garcia said. “People could start harassing students that they think are ‘illegal.’”

In addition to potentially inciting violence and devaluing the experiences of students, allowing students to say whatever they want on campus is also unproductive. 

“If you’re holding a sign on the street, yelling at passersby, you’re not having a productive conversation,” Garcia said. “You’re waiting for people to get pissed.”

Instead of turning the entire campus into a stage for shouting matches, UT should adopt a policy that focuses on creating spaces for students to respectfully and safely share ideas. 

Andrew Herrera, government junior and former University Democrats president says that student leaders need to gather respectfully to discuss political issues affecting campus.

“We need to create forums where we can have a discussion with the student body that makes people feel heard and validated,” Herrera said. 

UT doesn’t need a new sweeping free speech policy. It needs a policy tailored to the needs of its diverse student body that promotes both the productive exchange of ideas and makes all students feel welcome on campus.

Zaksek is a Plan II and women’s and gender studies freshman from Allen.