Free Expression

A History of Commitment to Free Expression

Freedom of expression is a core element of the history and culture of the University of Chicago. A commitment to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, and their importance to rigorous and open scholarly inquiry, can be traced back to the earliest days of the University.

The following timeline traces key moments in our history that help form the ongoing conversation about freedom of expression and the ways that the University has articulated its commitment to these principles since its founding in 1890.

The University’s commitment to free expression can be traced back to its founding president, William Rainey Harper.

In the wake of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, researchers from the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory formed The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to promote public and informed discourse about the nature of postwar nuclear research and its sociopolitical consequences.

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf3-00232, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

During the anti-communism movement of the 1930s and 40s, President, and later Chancellor, Robert Maynard Hutchins led a University-wide effort to defend and preserve our culture of free expression and academic freedom.

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-05033, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

In 2001, former University president Hanna Holborn Gray stated that the University of Chicago “finds its central purpose in an ideal of intellectual freedom.”

William Rainey Harper and the Birth of the University
In February 1891, after a protracted period of negotiation, William Rainey Harper accepted the presidency of the new University of Chicago. As a gifted scholar and talented educator, Harper was a natural choice to lead the new research university in the Midwest.

However, for some members of the Baptist community in Chicago, Harper was a controversial choice due to his unorthodox approach to theological scholarship. Influenced by models of German research institutions, he favored the rigorous and objective methodology of scientific inquiry.

This assertion of academic freedom by Harper marked the beginning of a long tradition of free expression and open inquiry at the University of Chicago.

Additional Resource:

Letter from William Rainey Harper to Dr. Morehouse, February 7, 1891, Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago, Founders’ Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 1.

Edward Bemis and the Resolution on Freedom of Speech
The University’s first major crisis of academic freedom came with the termination of Edward Bemis in 1895. Bemis, an associate professor in the University’s Extension School, gained considerable attention when it was suggested that he was terminated because his pro-labor speeches and his public criticism of wealthy capitalists had irked the Chicago elite and cost the University donations.

The University’s position, outlined in a report to the board of trustees that was subsequently leaked to the public, was that Bemis was not performing sufficiently as an instructor, that the University and its patrons embraced all classes in the community, and that “neither the expressed or supposed wishes and views of the patrons of the University” played a role in the decision.

In the Statement of the President of the University for the quarter ending June 30, 1895, President Harper addressed the issue of the public work of professors, noting:

Any statement to the effect that The University has in any way restricted the liberty of its professors in the declaration of their opinions, or in the performance of their duties as free citizens, I declare to be absolutely false. Care however should be taken not to confound personal privilege with official duty; not to mistake popular pleading for scientific thought.

President Harper elaborated on this statement at the Thirty-sixth Convocation on December 18, 1900, reiterating the Congregation of the University’s lasting commitment to academic freedom.

Additional Resource:

“A Statement by Professors Small and Butler,” October 16, 1895, Congregation of the University Resolution of Freedom of Speech, University Record, vol. 4, no. 21, August 25, 1889, p. 119.

Pacifists and Patriots: Controversial Speakers on the Midway

Since its earliest days, the University of Chicago has hosted speakers and events that have attracted controversy, both from within the campus community and from outside the University.

Noted social activist, sociologist, author, co-founder of Hull House, and eventual Nobel laureate Jane Addams was among those who scheduled events at the University. The decision to allow Addams’s pacifist organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, to hold an event at the campus drew criticism from such groups as the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. The Legion had previously attacked the teachings of such faculty members as historian William E. Dodd, calling for his removal over his “partisan” views.

When the local branch of the Legion challenged President Ernest DeWitt Burton to prohibit Addams’s group from hosting the event and to restrict socialist and pacifist faculty and guest speakers from expressing their views on campus, Burton refused and publicly stated: “It has always been the policy of the University of Chicago to give opportunity for free speech.”

Additional Resources:

“Pacifists Here for Opening of No War School: Burton Refuses to Bar Them at Midway,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 17, 1924, p 7.

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Charles R. Walgreen and Communism on the Quadrangles
In the early 1930s, the University was subject to public scrutiny over the “radical elements” among its faculty and students.

Economics lecturer Paul H. Douglas gained notoriety for publicly expressing admiration for the social policies of the Soviet Union and criticizing wealthy Chicago utility owners. In May 1932, a student socialist group invited William Z. Foster, the presidential candidate of the Communist Party to speak on campus, where he called for capitalism to “be abolished by an open struggle of violence.” Shortly after, the “International Workers Athletic Meet” (a socialist-sponsored “Counter-Olympics”) was held at Stagg Field with the permission of Amos Alonzo Stagg.

The University upheld its commitment to freedom of expression during this turbulent period, defending the rights of faculty to express their own views and engage in social causes, and the freedom of the University to invite any speaker to campus.

In 1935, charges of radicalism were again leveled at the University, when drugstore magnate Charles R. Walgreen withdrew his niece from the University over the Communist influences she had allegedly been exposed to in her classes. The matter was picked up by the newspapers, and when Walgreen’s demand for a public hearing before the board of trustees was denied, the scandal escalated to a hearing before a special committee of the Illinois Senate, colloquially referred to as the “Walgreen hearings.”

The University was eventually cleared of the charges of seditious practices, and President Robert Maynard Hutchins and the faculty were praised for their testimony. Hutchins was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Two years later, a repentant Charles Walgreen donated $550,000 to establish a visiting professorship/lectureship in American institutions.

Additional Resources:

Howe, John P. “News of the Quadrangles,” University of Chicago Magazine, Volume 27, Number 9, July 1935, pp. 345–352.

“Foster Pleads for Communism in U. of C. Talk,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 1, 1932, p 10.

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Academic Freedom and National Security

For reasons of security, the University of Chicago’s role in the Manhattan Project during World War II necessarily required a high level of secrecy and control of information. Following the war, atomic scientists at the Metallurgical Laboratory (and later Argonne National Laboratory) who were concerned about the secrets of atomic energy being solely in the hands of the military began to object to the level of government restriction on their research. These scientists were of the view that sharing their research would reduce the possibility of hostilities with the Soviet Union and advance the benefits of atomic research for all humanity.

The organization known as the Atomic Scientists of Chicago was founded on September 26, 1945, and defined its aims as:

  1. To explore, clarify, and formulate the opinion and responsibilities of scientists in regard to the problems brought about by the release of nuclear energy
  2. To educate the public to a full understanding of the scientific, technological, and social problems arising from the release of nuclear energy

Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists continues to act as a bridge between science and public policy, promoting public awareness and providing fact-based assessments on scientific advancements that are of benefit and risk to humanity.

Additional Resources:

“The Atomic Scientists of Chicago,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 1, no. 1.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The University and the Broyles Commission
In 1949, a group of students traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to lobby against new anti-subversive measures being introduced by State Senator Paul Broyles. Proponents of the legislation denounced the conduct of these students, launching an investigation into the “Communist influences” at the University.

Chancellor Hutchins appeared before the commission, condemning the proceedings as “unconstitutional and un-American,” and quite famously sparred with former House Un-American Activities Committee investigator J.B. Matthews during his testimony. Several students and faculty members were called before the commission, accompanied by legal representatives appointed and funded by the University.

Laird Bell, chair of the board of trustees, led a public campaign, which included the release of a pamphlet about academic freedom entitled “Are We Afraid of Freedom?” Three thousand students signed a petition to say that they had not been indoctrinated, while alumni mobilized to provide support in Springfield. The University’s religious leaders prepared letters affirming that there was no significant Communist presence at the University.

The commission eventually found no evidence of sedition, but criticized the University for allowing subversive groups and activities on campus. The Council of the University Senate approved a statement on academic freedom, condemning the nationwide assault on the academic community and calling for universities to stand against any assault on academic freedom.

In an era when other universities were terminating faculty or forcing their faculty to sign loyalty oaths, the University of Chicago’s united approach to these events not only reaffirmed the principles on which the institution was founded, but also reinforced our reputation as a leader in academic freedom.

Additional Resources:

Bell, Laird. “Are We Afraid of Freedom?” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, vol. 35, no. 2.

Seditious Activities Investigation Commission Report of Proceedings, Investigation of the University of Chicago and Roosevelt College, 1949.

George Lincoln Rockwell and Students’ Rights to Invite Speakers

In February 1963, residents of a student dormitory invited George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, to speak on campus.

Several students and members of the faculty called for the event’s cancellation, noting that the values of the Nazi Party were antithetical to the very values of freedom of expression that allowed Rockwell to speak on campus. Others noted that to cancel the event would be an infringement upon the students’ rights to invite speakers and on the University’s commitment to free speech.

Warner Wick, undergraduate dean of students, was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying that he expected “no truth or wisdom” from the talk, but that the appearance had become a matter of principal and was “chiefly symbolic.”

“Although we should have preferred to celebrate our principle on an occasion that promised to be more wholesome, the University will keep its faith with the student code and with the tradition of free interchange that the code embodies,” Wick said.

The event was relocated from Mandel Hall to Breasted Hall after the University received bomb threats on the day of the event. Despite protests by more than 400 people, only two individuals who were not affiliated with the University were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct by the Chicago Police Department.

Additional Resources:

“U of C Dean Backs Nazi’s Right to Talk,” Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1963, p(?).

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Institutional Neutrality and the Kalven Report

The 1960s were a turbulent time for campuses across the nation as student groups protested to bring about societal change, including voicing their opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War; improving civil rights for women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community; and campaigning for greater awareness on a range of issues, such as the environment, foreign policy, and socioeconomic conditions in the United States.

These protests often included demands for the University to declare a particular stance on social or political issues, or to divest from specific financial interests.

In February 1967, President George W. Beadle appointed the committee on the Role of the University in Political and Social Action, chaired by law professor and First Amendment scholar Harry Kalven Jr. The committee was charged with providing “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” Members of the committee included professors John Hope Franklin, Gwin J. Kolb, George Stigler, Jacob Getzels, Julian Goldsmith, and Gilbert F. White.

The committee found that the University was a community comprised of individuals with multiple and competing points of view, and that freedom of expression was essential to preserving this diversity of perspectives. For the University to attempt to declare a collective position on any issue would automatically censure those members of its community who disagreed with that position.

This statement, which is colloquially referred to as the “Kalven Report” was submitted to and approved by the Council of the University Senate in June 1967.

Additional Resources:

Kalven Committee: Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action.

“The Kalven Report: An Introduction to the University’s Role in Political & Social Action,” The Chicago Maroon.

1960s Protests and Sit-Ins

In the 1960s, as with campuses across the United States and around the world, University of Chicago students demonstrated their support for civil rights issues and marched against the conflict in Vietnam.

Although there were numerous sit-ins and protests on the University of Chicago campus during this period, it was the occupation of the Administration Building (now Edward H. Levi Hall) between January 30 and February 14, 1969, that had the most enduring impact on the University’s culture.

The catalyst for the occupation was the decision not to renew the contract of Marlene Dixon, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. The protest, however, came to represent a broader range of issues than Dixon’s contract, including the Vietnam War, race and gender equality, and the University’s relationship with the local neighborhoods.

President Edward H. Levi, supported by the Committee of the Council of the Senate, elected not to negotiate with the students while the occupation continued. However, he also elected not to involve the police, preferring to wait until the students left the building of their own accord. Subsequent protest activities included an assault on the President’s House and an invasion of the Quadrangle Club.

Following the occupation, 42 students were expelled (although 21 of these were individuals who failed to appear at their disciplinary hearings and thus were expelled as a matter of process), and 81 students were suspended for periods ranging from one to six quarters.

The occupation and the resulting disciplinary proceedings generated considerable discussion among the faculty and informed the establishment of the All-University Disciplinary System in 1970, which supported the student right to protest, but not to disrupt, the operations of the University. These discussions also led to the creation of a faculty presence in the residence halls, with the goal of establishing stronger connections between the students and faculty in the wake of these events.

Additional Resources:

“U. of C. Rebels Leave Building After 15th Day: Students Depart Singing, Hold Final Rally,” Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1969, p N1.

© 2019 Copyright Chicago Tribune; all rights reserved. Used under license. Any unauthorized use or distribution of this article is strictly prohibited. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Edward C. Banfield and the Rights of Guest Speakers

In the 1970s, the University of Chicago clarified its position on the rights of visiting speakers, following the disruption of guest lectures and events at the University and institutions across the nation.

In March 1974, a group of 25 protestors disrupted a lecture by Edward C. Banfield, ending his address. Banfield was a controversial political science professor from the University of Pennsylvania whose recently published book, The Unheavenly City, contained controversial assertions that many considered racist and classist. His lectures had been disrupted on several campuses.

In response to this event and other similar incidents involving guest speakers, President Edward H. Levi requested the Committee on the Criteria of Academic Appointment to present its views on the problems that these disruptions raised for the University.

The committee found that invited speakers should enjoy the same academic freedom as members of the University community, noting that:

Such occasional invitations and appointments postulate that the person appointed will enjoy the same rights for the performance of the duties for which he has been invited as a person holding an academic appointment duly made by a constituted appointive body. The fact that the invitation is only for a specific occasion does not derogate from his right to expound his interpretation of whatever problem he has been invited to speak.

With regard to disruption of such events, the report notes: “Deliberate frustration of this activity is an illegitimate abrogation of the powers of invitation and appointment, which are absolutely crucial to the University’s execution of its proper functions.”

Additional Resources:

Report of the Committee on the Criteria of Academic Appointment (1974).

Aims of Education Address by Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71

The Aims of Education Address has been part of the orientation program for incoming students in the College since 1961 and is a tradition that continues to this day. Each year, a University of Chicago faculty member is invited to speak to entering undergraduates about their view on the aims of a liberal education. Aims of Education speakers have included presidents Edward H. Levi, Hanna Holborn Gray, Don Michael Randel, and Hugo F. Sonnenschein.

In 1995, Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, who at the time was the Harry Kalven, Jr., Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and the College and Provost of the University, delivered his Aims of Education Address on the history of academic freedom and its special significance to the University of Chicago.

Stone has remained an influential voice in the University on matters of freedom of expression, and, as chair of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, played a lead role in the development of the Statement on Principles of Free Expression in 2015.

Additional Resource:

Aims of Education Address presented by Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, September 24, 1995.

The Chicago Principles

In 2012, responding to an increase in attempts to suppress free speech both at the University of Chicago and on campuses across the country, First Amendment scholar and Law School professor Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, drafted a statement outlining the importance of free expression and academic freedom to the University.

The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago was appointed in July 2014 by President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric Isaacs in response to nationwide events “that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.”

The committee’s charge was to draft a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Colloquially known as the “Chicago Principles,” this document has been praised by institutions and free expression advocates across the United States, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

More than 70 institutions have voted or decided either to adopt the Chicago Principles or develop similar policies of their own, including Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Purdue, American University, the University of Wisconsin system, Washington University in St. Louis, Georgetown, and the City University of New York.

Additional Resources:

The Chicago Principles: Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.

Statement on principles of free inquiry, by Prof. Geoffrey Stone.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

An Affirmation of the University’s Commitment to Academic Freedom

In August 2016, the College sent a letter to incoming first-year students affirming the University’s commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and to fostering a campus climate that welcomes diversity of both background and opinion.

The letter enclosed a monograph written by John W. Boyer, Dean of the College and Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History, on the University’s historic and continuing commitment to academic freedom.

The College welcome letter gained substantial attention in the media and sparked a national conversation about free expression on university campuses, with many praising the University for its stance.

During Orientation Week, faculty member Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, welcomed first-year students to campus with an Aims of Education Address entitled “Free Speech on Campus: A Challenge of Our Times.”

Additional Resources:

Academic Freedom and the Modern University by John W. Boyer (2002; reissued 2016)

“Free Speech on Campus: A Challenge of Our Times” by Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71


Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression

President Paul Alivisatos announced the formation of the Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression. 

The Forum was created to expand and enhance the University’s engagement across the constellation of issues related to free inquiry and expression, in collaboration with faculty and the broader university community.

“At its outset, the University of Chicago was founded upon the idea that academic freedom and freedom of expression serve as the bedrock of education and the wellspring of discovery. While our shared commitment to free inquiry and expression is vital to our university’s culture, the integrity of its practice should never be taken for granted. Each successive generation of faculty, students, and staff has taken on the necessary, often difficult work of giving these principles meaning throughout the University’s history,” Alivisatos said.

Tom Ginsburg, the Leo Spitz Distinguished Service Professor of International Law, was appointed as the Forum’s inaugural faculty director. Tony Banout was selected to serve as its inaugural executive director.

This timeline was compiled from a variety of sources, including two works by John W. Boyer, The University of Chicago: A History (2016) and Academic Freedom and the Modern University: The Experience of the University of Chicago, which was distributed to incoming students in 2016. Other sources include archival material at the Special Collections Research Center, the University of Chicago Photographic Archive, The Chicago Record, The Chicago Maroon, and Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed’s A History of the University of Chicago (1916).

“Academic freedom has never been an issue as a right guaranteed to our faculty; it simply has been, is, and must continue to be. Perhaps we scarcely feel its presence. Basic to that freedom is a responsibility, a high dedication to seek the truth and make it known. Dedication to truth requires and justifies the freedom to seek it.”

Lawrence Kimpton
Inaugural Address, October 1951

“One cannot search for truth with a closed mind, or without the right to question or doubt at every step. Any injunction to close the mind, to restrict one’s beliefs arbitrarily, or to accept on authority without doubt, violates the concept of freedom of the mind.”

George W. Beadle
Inaugural Address, June 1961