Five years of the ‘Chicago Statement’: What have we learned? Part 3

Five years of the ‘Chicago Statement’: What have we learned? Part 3

2021-01-22 20:16:33

Editor's Note: This is the third and final post in one multi-piece series think about the impact of the "Report of the Committee on Freedom of ExpressionAt the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”), released in January 2015. Since FIRE has successfully advocated for colleges and universities across the country to adopt the statement itself to express their commitment to freedom of speech.

In this final installment of FIRE & # 39; s series detailing the impact and lessons learned in the five years since the Chicago Statement was released and embraced by many higher education institutions across the countrywe examine its impact on individual campuses.

One question we often get from free speech advocates and skeptics alike relates to the tangible impact of adopting this kind of policy statement:

What observable improvements have been made to campuses that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement to prove that it is more than just a flowery statement of no-impact principles?

It's a fair and important question, and FIRE anecdotally noted two key areas of positive impact worth highlighting in this post: speech codes and administrative behavior.

General speech code impact

Many colleges and universities that have passed the Chicago Statement also have their speech codes – institutional policies that restrict student speech protection. By doing this, Chicago Statement schools are showing that they are doing more than just 'talking about talking' by saying that they prioritize freedom of speech and that they are also 'on the road'. go & # 39; by making real improvements to their internal policies.

Nationally, the quality of speech codes varies greatly. FIRE uses a traffic light-inspired rating system to rate speech codes based on how they can be used to punish students' speech. Policies that get our highest rating "green light" do not seriously compromise speech; vague policies that can be abused to punish speech are given a warning, "yellow light" rating, and policies with a clear and substantial restriction on students' speech are given our lowest rank, a "red light" rating. (You can read more about what each rating means here.)

In our last Spotlight on voice codes 2021 report, which examines speech codes from 478 colleges and universities across the country, FIRE found:

  • 21.3% earn an overall red light rating
  • 65.3% earn an overall rating for yellow light
  • 11.7% deserve a green light overall rating

For comparison: in the admittedly smaller sample of 79 colleges and universities who have endorsed a version of the Chicago Statement:

  • 10.1% earn an overall red light rating
  • 36.7% earn an overall rating for yellow light
  • 12.7% deserve a green light overall rating

Of course, these two samples should not be regarded as comparing apples to apples. First, the sample of Chicago Statement schools is significantly smaller. Additionally, it should be noted that 17 institutions (21.5%) that have adopted the Chicago Statement are not rated in our Spotlight database, and 15 of the adoptions are through university systems (18.9%) that are multi-school rated, so these are not included in the above percentages. (For example: FIRE rates multiple settings in the State University System of Florida, each of which earns different ratings, including three green light schools.)

The University of Florida is one of FIRE's most notable schools of freedom of speech – they have passed a version of the Chicago Statement and have a green light rating for its policies. (Bryan Pollard /

An additional note is that many adoptions of the Chicago Statement are made by faculty bodies rather than the administration in general, which some believe ignores the indicator that a freedom of speech policy statement reflects a institution commitment to free speech.

Despite these caveats, it's hard not to note that in this small sample, nearly 13% of institutions (10 out of 79) that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement also receive FIRE's highest score on the go-ahead .

Importantly, this number is even higher than shown here, as we consider the adoptions of university systems as a single adoption. That means that within those systems there are more individual institutions that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement that can claim membership in this elite list. These green light settings are Purdue University, McNeese State University, the University of Florida, the University of North Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Revised speech codes

For our annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report, FIRE catalogs changes to speech codes at each of the settings we reviewed over the past year. Policy is being revised for a variety of reasons: pressure from free speech advocates such as FIRE and others, as part of the university's annual policy review process, in response to changes in law or governance priorities, student and teacher advocacy, or a combination of those factors. It is therefore often difficult to determine the exact reason for a policy review. Two examples from the past year stand out, however, as policy changes were related to the adoption by the institution of a policy statement on freedom of expression.

The review of the University of Maine's policy on freedom of speech and assembly is a striking example. In 2017, the University of Maine System's Board of Trustees passed the Chicago Statement. After working with FIRE in response to our letter mentioning the policy FIRE & # 39; s "Voice Code of the Month" for June 2019, The University of Maine (a member of the system) has adopted its policy on & # 39; free speech and meeting & # 39; revised to include language from across the system "Free speech, academic freedom and politenessStatement, which actively embraces freedom of speech. Policy now deserves a green light rating and reinforces the University of Maine's commitment to freedom of speech at both the campus and system levels.

In statewide trends, the Chicago Statement received one of the most prominent recommendations at the time Florida Governor asked all state higher education institutions to pass a resolution on freedom of speech in the model of the Chicago Statement in 2019. All 12 presidents of the affiliated institutions of the State University System of Florida have applied to the "Statement on free speech. Shortly afterwards FIRE cooperated Florida State University to pass an overall green light rating, joined two fellow green-light institutions of the State University System of Florida, the University of Florida and the University of North Florida.

Striking institutions show a heartwarming trend

Notably, there are now 15 institutions both of which receive a green light rating and have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement. A trend that we first highlighted in our Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 Reportthis positive trend has continued.

At the time we wrote:

More and more institutions that give the green light are endorsing declarations of freedom of speech in principle. This elite group of colleges and universities should not only boast that they do not keep speech codes that restrict their students' freedom of speech, but that they have actively committed to embracing and encouraging the free exchange of ideas on their campuses.

Since the 2019 report, when five institutions could claim this elite status, we have tripled the number of institutions with this distinction. Now 15 institutions can proudly say that they don't have restrictive speech codes and have actively prioritized free speech:

Colorado Mesa Entrance SignColorado Mesa University in Grand Junction earned the FIRE green light rating this fall. For the record, it has also adopted a version of the Chicago Statement. (EQRoy /

In the state of Colorado, freedom of speech on college campuses has been blessed. Two institutions in the state deserved us highest overall rating for green light in 2020 alone, Colorado Mesa University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Improvements to the speech code were not the only form of progress made at these institutions: CMU adopted the Chicago Statement in combination with earning the green light, and the Board of Regents for the University of Colorado System adopted the Chicago Statement in 2018.

FIRE hopes to continue to welcome schools to our growing list of green light settings and Chicago Statement Settings. We predict that more and more schools will implement these positive changes at the same time, as Colorado Mesa University did last fall. When a higher education institution makes a public announcement to prioritize free speech as so many have done by passing some version of the Chicago Statement, it makes sense that the next logical step would be to ensure that there is no speech codes exist to limit the expression of the institution has promised to encourage and prioritize.

Impact on administrative behavior

In addition to policy impact, FIRE has also observed anecdotal evidence that a previous commitment to a policy statement on freedom of expression has a positive impact on administrative behavior.

Arizona State University – an institute with double green light and a Chicago Statement – offers an example of an administration that has fully embraced freedom of speech.

"Freedom of speech is a hallmark of every public university", his free speech source page reminds students in the first sentence. The page also contains links to the Chicago Statement Approval, related policies and procedures, FIRE & # 39; s Free Speech Orientation program, as well as other materials. The university plays a leading role in actively embracing and educating students about their First Amendment rights.

Just as important as educating students about freedom of speech, many institutions have kept the lofty promises of the Chicago Statement. These institutions vowed to offer “All members of the university community have the widest possible leeway to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn,” and many university leaders have found how challenging this commitment is in practice when a speech conflict arises. Fortunately, Chicago Statement schools consistently rise to the challenge.

When a higher education institution makes a public announcement to prioritize free speech as so many have done by passing a version of the Chicago Statement, it makes sense that the next logical step would be to ensure that there are no speech codes exist to express the phrase the institution has promised to encourage and prioritize. "

Kansas State University, another institution that deserves both a green light rating and has adopted the Chicago Statement, maintained its obligations last summer when they faced significant public pressure to punish a student for an offensive (but protected) tweet. "Congratulations George Floyd on being drug free for a whole month!" the student wrote, about a month after the Minneapolis man was murdered by the police. Floyd's death sparked a summer of national unrest and protest about racial injustice, and unsurprisingly, the student's tweet struck a nerve: KSU president Richard B. Myers received immediate calls to discipline the student and a petition to remove his conservative student group – America First Students – from campus. keep out.

FIRE quickly sent one letter to Myers reminding the KSU of its obligations under the First Amendment and its public commitment to free speech in the "Statement on Free Speech and Expression. " KSU eventually responded with a "more speech" approach to calls for deportation of the student, determined that the university would maintain the First Amendment: "(W) While these reports are disrespectful and repugnant, we cannot break the law. "

Likewise Miami University resisted calls to punish controversially but protected speech by a professor during FIRE & # 39; s busiest summer ever.

Also striking is the constant dedication from the University of Chicago itself to freedom of speech. When it comes to administrative responses to calls for disciplinary action for protected expression, UChicago leadership could deliver a masterclass. Last fall, the university was under pressure to discipline a professor criticized departmental and university-wide approaches to diversity and inclusion initiatives. UChicago's president, Robert Zimmer, responded quickly with an unwavering defense of freedom of speech.

“As stated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values ​​of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, ”Zimmer wrote. "The faculty is free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the university, its departments, schools, or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment."

Other colleges and universities would do well to follow Zimmer's lead. Indeed, speech conflicts are easier to control when there are fixed rules in force in advance.


While the number of institutions adopting freedom of speech policy statements has declined since 2015, FIRE has observed several trends over the past five years associated with the Chicago Declaration, which indicates that freedom of speech is alive and well on U.S. college campuses. We hope that an increasing number of green light settings – and other institutions – approve the Chicago Statement.

We expect Chicago Statement schools to continue to set a national example: Even under pressure to do differently, colleges and universities can firmly uphold the fundamental principles that underpin higher education and our democracy.

Thank you for following this series reflecting and exploring the impact of the Chicago Statement. You can read Part 1 of the series to read more about adoption trends and Part 2 to read more about general criticism of the principles. You can learn more about it Chicago Declaration and FIRE & # 39; s voice code resources. You can reach us directly at [email protected].


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