By Sarah Manhardt | Photo by Jean Lachat

Prof. Geoffrey R. Stone gave the newest undergraduate students in the College a sweeping account of the many historical reasons why freedom of expression is one of the University of Chicago’s core values—and why that freedom has always been in jeopardy of some kind.

Stone, JD’71, who has spent much of his Law School career examining free speech, delivered the 54th Aims of Education address, traditionally the first extended academic lecture that first-year students attend as a group. His Sept. 22 address at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel was followed by discussions with faculty members in the students' residential house communities. 

His address to the Class of 2020 described free expression as essential to the work of challenging received wisdom and intellectual authorities—tasks that he said are part of the students’ academic responsibility.

Prof. Geoffrey Stone delivers the Aims of Education address on Sept. 22 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfhRm6hNIYw (Video by UChicago Creative)

“To meet this responsibility, you will have to be independent, you will have to be daring, you will have to take risks,” he said. “It is not easy to tell your professor, who has devoted years, perhaps decades, to mastering her subject, that you disagree with her latest observation or theory. But we urge you to see the discourse of this University as an incitement to risk and to boldness.”

The Aims of Education address was one of many events aimed at helping new students learn more about the University’s culture and resources for students. Academic freedom also was a major topic in the remarks that John W. Boyer, dean of the College, gave at the opening Convocation for graduate students on Sept. 20. Boyer noted that the University was dedicated to academic freedom from its founding, “at a time when such ideas were not well understood in American society.”

In tracing the roots of academic freedom, Stone emphasized that most American universities have at one time or another suppressed speech that was considered dangerous or immoral. Advocacy for gender, racial and sexual equality was routinely viewed as grounds for removing students or faculty members, and the courts gave virtually no protection for dissent against the United States’ involvement in World War I and during the Cold War. Stone stressed the struggle of academics to win the right to free speech for unpopular ideas.

Prof. Geoffrey Stone speaks with residents of Snell-Hitchcock Residence Hall in a colloquium following the Aims of Education address. UChicago faculty held similar discussions with first-year students throughout campus. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

“Academic freedom is, in fact, a hard-bought acquisition in an endless struggle to preserve the right of each individual, students and faculty alike, to seek wisdom, knowledge and truth,” he said.

Stone’s account of free speech on university campuses focused on the University of Chicago, which has long played an influential role in such debates. He highlighted past controversies such as in the 1930s, when a student organization invited a Communist leader to campus, and in the 1960s when tensions over the Vietnam War roiled society. A university’s role, he said, is to “instill in its students and faculty the importance of winning the day by facts, by ideas and by persuasion, rather than by force, obstruction or censorship.”

Supporting marginalized groups

Stone also described current tensions over free speech, using examples from universities across the country, including UChicago. The topic was familiar to the Class of 2020: In August, many media outlets covered the discussion that arose from a letter to incoming UChicago undergraduates that the College sent along with Boyer’s monograph on the history of academic freedom at UChicago.

One lesson from the debates over freedom of expression, Stone said, is that universities should encourage rigorous debate and disagreement while upholding “the importance of civility and respect,” recognizing that the cost of free speech tends to disproportionately affect groups that are the most marginalized.

“In our often unjust society, the individuals who most often bear the brunt of free speech—or at least of certain types of free speech—tend to be racial and ethnic minorities; religious minorities; women; gays, lesbians and transsexuals; immigrants; ideological dissidents; and so on,” Stone said. “Even if [universities] cannot ‘solve’ this problem by censorship, they can and should take other steps to address the special challenges faced by groups and individuals who are most often made to feel unwelcome and unvalued by others.”

Such support for marginalized students should include helping them learn “how to speak up, how to respond effectively, how to challenge those whose attitudes, whose words, and whose beliefs offend, appall and outrage them,” he said.

Dean John W. Boyer at Aims of Education address
John W. Boyer, dean of the College, introduces Prof. Geoffrey Stone as the Aims of Education speaker. Days earlier Boyer spoke to graduate students about the importance of academic freedom. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor, described how as a student at the Law School his passion for the First Amendment was ignited through a course he took with Prof. Harry Kalven. As a faculty member Stone chaired the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which in 2015 published a report that articulated the University’s commitment to free expression—a set of principles that numerous other universities have since adopted in some form, including Princeton, Purdue, Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities. Stone quoted from the report at length.

“In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed,” the report stated. “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose.”

Stone concluded by quoting the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote that “all life is an experiment.” He said students should take that as an invitation to approach their educational journey at the University and beyond as an adventure with “no predetermined path.”

“May your life’s experiment be filled with curiosity boldness and courage,” Stone said.

Originally published on September 23, 2016.