President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs: Protest and Free Expression

To:  Campus Community
From:  Robert J. Zimmer and Eric D. Isaacs
Subject:  Protest and Free Expression
Date:  June 7, 2015

Within the past week, two protests on campus have violated the University’s long-standing commitment to free expression, as expressed over the years by multiple faculty committees and reports, most recently in the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. We write to reaffirm these principles in the context of these recent events. 

The Report, reflecting 125 years of University tradition and commitment, forcefully articulates the importance of an environment of free expression  of ideas, whether or not others may find this speech disturbing. It is a shared obligation of our community to support such freedom.  Antithetical to such freedom are actions that prevent speech on the part of others, obstruct the ability of members of our community to listen, or prevent people in the University from carrying out their work. The two events this week were directly antithetical to the University’s values for these reasons.

On Saturday, June 6, protesters disrupted a major University event at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the Alumni Awards, which honor alumni for exceptional academic work, professional work, and service to society. In addition, awards are presented at this event to both faculty and students. Winners are invited to speak about the nature of their work.  Unfortunately, protestors entered and lay down at the front of the chapel, shouted continuously, and prevented the program from continuing. Their actions forced the cancellation of the event in the chapel.

On June 3, protesters locked the doors to one of the two main entrances of Levi Hall, locked employees of the Office of Civic Engagement into their office suite, and disabled both elevators in the six-story building. This created a fire hazard and prevented people with disabilities from entering or exiting the building. After two hours, and after the protesters refused repeated requests to remove locks they used to barricade the doors, members of the Chicago Fire Department entered through a window and cut the locks. No one was injured. Nine protesters were arrested, in part because they had endangered occupants of the building. 

These protests are not representative of, nor compatible with, the level of discourse that our students, faculty and staff work to sustain. Members of the University community engage in dozens of protests each year on a wide range of issues, including challenges to current practices of the University.  Such protests are not only appropriate, but they can contribute to the exchange of ideas that can lead to change. It is equally vital to treat protesters with respect, even when disagreements are significant. But protests that threaten safety, silence speakers with different points of view, prevent members of our community from listening to speakers, or prevent campus events from proceeding diminish freedom of expression.

We have all been given an extraordinary and unusual legacy – an institution devoted to rigorous, intense inquiry and analysis, and an environment of freedom of expression that is necessary for such an institution to flourish.  It is up to all of us to preserve and enhance this legacy for our work today and for the future.