As an institution of higher learning, the University of Denver historically has supported a culture of robust debate and open dialogue. DU’s commitment to free speech came into sharper focus in 2017 when the University prepared a Statement of Policy and Principles on Freedom of Expression.
This document was written the same year DU endorsed the Chicago Statement, a model free speech policy statement by the University of Chicago. Rather than replicate the Chicago Statement, DU created a statement of its own—drafted, discussed and debated by the DU community.
“The University of Denver remains deeply committed to our freedom of expression policy,” says University of Denver Chancellor Jeremy Haefner. “We do this for our students, who come to this institution to learn, hear new and diverse viewpoints, and share their own perspectives. We do it for our faculty, who must be free to expand knowledge while they also educate—and for democracy, where the freedom of expression is a central promise.”
DU Magazine sat down with Darrin Hicks (pictured above), a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and member of the committee that drafted the freedom of expression statement, to discuss the significance of the policy and the importance of free speech on campus. This interview has been edited for brevity.
Why did DU sign on to the Chicago Statement in 2017?
I think it was a response to what people had been seeing going on around the country. And though it had not happened explicitly at DU—for instance, very controversial invited speakers drawing large protests—[it was clear that universities] are going to have to recommit or clarify their commitments to free expression.
It came out as the strongest statement to date on the value of the freedom of expression. Certainly, in response to a lot that had been going on college campuses, especially elite private college campuses.
What was happening on college campuses at that time?
Probably the most prevalent was the controversy over invited speakers. It could be a commencement address, or it could be a presidential candidate, and some students would find that speaker to be expressing ideas they’ve vehemently disagreed with.
There were some political groups who started seeing a really good opportunity for news coverage by sending very provocative speakers to campuses with the hope of generating a great deal of controversy. That had started to become a prominent political thing that was happening, and it certainly happened to DU.
Would DU need to approve a controversial speaker on campus?
No, that was one of the things we were really careful to make sure wasn’t the case. There is no approval process. I think a lot of people at first thought that’s what the policy would be. The committee was like, no, let’s make up principles that we hope are respected.
This was more like: These events can become contentious. If you want it to be the best event possible—that is, people hearing the message of the person you’re inviting and, at the same time, full opportunities for other people to express their opinion about the speech—then there are ways to do that where everyone’s freedom of expression is respected, and everyone is safe.
How does this policy benefit students? What are they learning?
I think they’re learning that a university is a unique environment that is centered on free inquiry and critical discussion, and that it is not designed to be like every other environment. It’s not the public square. It’s not the mall. It’s not even the congressional debate chamber. A university is unique, and it has certain cardinal values—the pursuit of truth, the idea that one should be open enough to risk discomfort in the service of learning and becoming a better person.
The second lesson is that it’s always worth it to try to talk it out, because most people don’t have the extreme views that may be ascribed to others. You may vote for a certain presidential candidate, but you are not that presidential candidate. You’re a much more complex person who could be appealed to. So, you just don’t assume a person is an idea. You treat them as a person, and when you do that, you don’t have to see them as enemies.
And third, it teaches that as much as you would like certain ideas just to go away and be changed, that can only happen through a process of dialogue, debate and persuasion. None of us really want a completely coercive state or administration to decide for us what we say and what we hear. We really want to be able to make those decisions ourselves.