UT can support activists by adopting Chicago Principles

Abby Springs

In 1977, the University of Missouri refused to allow recognition of a gay rights group on campus, based on the belief that the group would encourage lawbreaking behavior. 

The organization, Gay Liberation, sued the university, and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the university, “acting here as an instrumentality of the State, (had) no right to restrict speech or association simply because it finds the views expressed to be abhorrent.”

The court’s decision is an accurate reflection of the values laid out in the Chicago Statement — a set of free speech principles that declare “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

The statement was approved here at UT on Tuesday in a resolution passed by Student Government. The University should follow students’ lead and adopt the Chicago Statement as official policy. Doing so will reaffirm its commitment to on-campus free speech and student activism. An administration with unrestricted power to limit offensive speech can set policy that prohibits productive discourse. 

Those deemed offensive and immoral by school administrators and political leaders have historically included anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, communists and members of the LGBTQ community. If students want to continue their own campus demonstrations in support of sexual assault survivors, against open-carry laws and about other important issues, keeping free speech regulation out of the hands of the powerful is the best way to ensure protection of free speech rights. Implementing the Chicago Statement will help ensure free speech remains an important tool for on-campus social movements, as it has been in the past.

Although protest and free speech have been essential strategies used by marginalized groups, some students on campus are concerned the Chicago Statement will put those very same groups at risk.

“I think it’s all a slippery slope to allowing unfiltered and unfettered opinions that are hurtful to groups on campus to be allowed,” said Andrew Herrera, a government junior and former president of University Democrats. 

Insensitivity and intolerance do exist on UT’s campus. The Young Conservatives of Texas’ “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” was certainly offensive and demeaning, delegitimizing the experiences of hundreds of undocumented UT students. However, the Chicago Statement does not protect every form of speech. It puts important limits on expression that “violates the law” or “constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.”

“The Chicago Statement makes clear that the safety and security of individuals who may be affected by such speech is protected,” said Ashish Dave, a business honors and Plan II freshman who co-sponsored the Student Government resolution supporting the statement. 

Adopting the Chicago Statement and ensuring the safety of those who need protection are compatible ideas. The administration will retain the power to punish those who threaten, harass or otherwise use their expression in ways that are “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.” As long as the safety and security of students on campus is ensured, the right to protest and express ideas must be ensured as well.

When discussing restrictions on political expression on campus, it is important to remember who has historically been affected by those restrictions. This country has made significant social progress since the 1977 Gay Liberation case, but there are still causes worth fighting for. 

To believe there won’t be people who want to shut that activism down is to ignore the lessons of our history. UT administrators must implement the Chicago Statement to ensure social and political activism will never be discouraged on our campus.

Springs is a government freshman from Dallas.