The right to protest: Understanding the Chicago Principles

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During the Claiming Williams “free expression” panel, it became evident that some students have serious misconceptions about the nature of the Chicago Principles. One particularly troubling misconception is the belief that the Chicago Principles do not protect the rights of students to protest speakers they disagree with. During the discussion about what principles the College should adopt, some students defended a view that has disturbing implications.  

To uphold the right of protest is to uphold the right of people to publicly express their opinions about a speaker’s views. If the College prohibits members of the community from expressing their views, the College would be limiting the right of protest. The Chicago Principles explicitly condemn such limitation, claiming, “[M]embers of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus.” We are in complete agreement with the Chicago Principles and have urged the College to affirm a robust commitment to freedom of expression on campus.  

The right to expression, however, does not imply a right to participate in any activity that has expressive intent, for the protection of all activities with expressive intent would have disastrous consequences. The right to protest a war, for example, does not give one the right to express one’s views by shutting down a highway or by committing assault. The Chicago Principles state that the right of community members to protest does not give them the right to “obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” What is prohibited by that statement is not protest per se, but obstruction or interference with the freedom of other community members. 

When complaining that the Chicago Principles do not protect the right of protest, one student on Thursday’s freedom of expression panel pointed to Middlebury as an example. This student claimed that the fact that students at Middlebury were disciplined after protesting a talk by Charles Murray shows that Middlebury does not fully protect the right of protest. As another student on the panel pointed out, the students at Middlebury were disciplined neither for the content of their views nor for the fact that they publicly expressed these views. Rather, they faced sanctions for disrupting a public event, pulling fire alarms, and being involved in a protest that became physically violent. Middlebury, like the University of Chicago and institutions that have adopted the Chicago Principles, explicitly defends the rights of students to protest. What Middlebury does not defend is the right of protestors to disrupt events by shouting down speakers or impeding the free movement of other people.  

It was distressing that one student on the panel claimed that the true protection of free speech would require the College to allow disruptive activities like those that occurred at Middlebury. We note that the student did not seem to be urging acts of civil disobedience, which have a long history in political movements. In committing acts of civil disobedience, protesters deliberately flout institutional rules and are willing to risk punishment in so doing. Rather, this student seemed to hold that rules governing expression at the College should recognize a right to engage in such behavior. Were such a right fully general, any member of the community would be permitted to disrupt any event that they found objectionable.  

Perhaps, however, the student thought that the right is to be restricted. Some members of the community should be permitted to disrupt some events. Those who support “good” moral or political positions may engage in disruptive or potentially violent behavior in protesting those who support “bad” moral or political positions. In fact, those who support “bad” positions will not even be allowed to receive an invitation to speak on campus. In the course of administering this new policy, the College would need to make decisions about the moral and political acceptability of someone’s position. We firmly believe that allowing this form of content-based censorship is a slippery slope that would have disastrous consequences both for academic freedom and for the educational mission of the College.  

Luana Maroja, an associate professor of biology, has been at the College since 2010. Keith McPartland, an associate professor of philosophy, has been at the College since 2007.