HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago — which made national headlines for its defense of free speech last year — said the actions of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in rallies in Charlottesville do not qualify as protected expression and would not be allowed at the Hyde Park campus.
University President Robert Zimmer sent a letter to the campus community Tuesday saying the white supremacist rallies near the University of Virginia, prompted by the removal of a Confederate monument, could not be defended as legitimate displays of free speech.
Zimmer’s comments come just as some of the organizers of the Charlottesville rally were angling to speak at U. of C.
“The celebration of Nazi flags and uniforms, torches and hoods of the KKK, accompanied by powerful weapons visibly carried by those espousing hate and exclusion with a clear intent to menace and threaten, and the death of an innocent person must be seen for what they are — an attempt to intimidate, overtly threaten and arrogate for themselves an exclusive right to speech,” Zimmer wrote in the letter. “Such overt efforts to intimidate and to threaten the safety of others are not within the ‘freedom of expression’ espoused by our university.”
U. of C. alumnus and white nationalist Richard Spencer earlier this month tried to get an invitation to speak at U. of C. before leading the group of torch-bearing protesters in Charlottesville. Though Spencer's request to a professor for an invitation was rejected, Zimmer has said in the past he would allow Spencer to speak on campus.
But in Zimmer’s letter Tuesday, he indicates any use of Nazi or KKK symbols — which were brandished prominently in Charlottesville — would be viewed as a threat and not allowed.
“It is a travesty to label as free speech the combination of brandished weapons, the killing of an innocent person, threats and the symbols that represent destruction to so many,” Zimmer writes.
Zimmer’s letter reinforced the limits of speech at U. of C. after a year in which the university got widespread attention for affirming 1st Amendment protections on campus
The university was praised and criticized both on and off campus after the dean of students sent a letter to incoming freshmen in 2016 that rejected the creation of so-called "safe spaces" or "trigger warnings" aimed at shielding students from potentially offensive speech.
Spencer took the letter and Zimmer’s comments as an invitation to come to campus. Despite his white nationalist views, Spencer had in the past shied away from advocating violence to achieve that end or connect it to similar goals of the Nazis and other groups.
The letter sent to incoming freshmen this year from Dean of Students Jay Ellison struck a similar note on the university’s commitment to open discourse even while grappling with difficult subject matter, but does not make reference to safe spaces or trigger warnings.
The university’s policy on free speech bars speech that violates the law, is a threat or harassment, unjustifiably invades privacy or violates confidentiality, defames a specific person or is directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.
Firearms, like those carried by protesters in Charlottesville, are already banned on campus.
Read the full letter from Zimmer below:
From: Robert J. Zimmer
Subject: Charlottesville and Free Expression
Date: August 22, 2017
I write to share some thoughts on recent national events.
The values of free expression and open discourse have stood as a foundation of the University of Chicago since its inception. We continue to emphasize their centrality and importance to an environment of intellectual challenge, openness, and inclusion in our University community, and by extension, to our society more generally.
Recent events in Charlottesville saw a group claiming to act on the basis of free expression, but whose behavior demonstrated the opposite. The celebration of Nazi flags and uniforms, torches and hoods of the KKK, accompanied by powerful weapons visibly carried by those espousing hate and exclusion with a clear intent to menace and threaten, and the death of an innocent person must be seen for what they are—an attempt to intimidate, overtly threaten, and arrogate for themselves an exclusive right to speech. Such overt efforts to intimidate and to threaten the safety of others are not within the “freedom of expression” espoused by our University.
The University’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, the basis for the “Chicago Principles” on free expression, is clear to distinguish between open discourse, even if offensive to some, and threatening behavior. It is a travesty to label as free speech the combination of brandished weapons, the killing of an innocent person, threats, and the symbols that represent destruction to so many.
While the targets of the marchers in Charlottesville were broad, including immigrant communities, the tactics, symbols, actions, and threats they employed had a particular focus on two minority communities, for whom these threats had a painful historical resonance: the African American community that endured hundreds of years of slavery and another century of ongoing violence and legal exclusion from many aspects of American life; and the Jewish community around the world that, after a decline in overtly violent acts of anti-Semitism since the murders of massive numbers of Jews during the Second World War, is seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism in its many destructive forms.
Despite the efforts of the marchers in Charlottesville to label their actions as protected speech, and efforts of others to defend this behavior in a similar way, their conduct belies their claims, and is totally contrary to the values we must continue to espouse and protect as a University and community.