Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

Speech for All

Geoffrey R. Stone (Courtesy of the University of Chicago)
Geoffrey R. Stone, the free-speech prof at Chicago


Before I left home, I told a friend in Chicago that I was coming to town. I said that I would see an important professor at the University of Chicago. My friend replied, “Is there any other kind there?”

This particular professor is Geoffrey R. Stone, of the law school. He is a champion of free speech, on campus and elsewhere. Indeed, he is the guiding spirit behind the Chicago Statement, which articulates the Chicago Principles, which address free speech at this university. The principles were published in January 2015 and soon got famous. Some 70 colleges and universities have now adopted them for themselves.

In November, I spoke with Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue. (He is also a former governor of Indiana, and a Reagan conservative.) He said that he “xeroxed” the Chicago Principles as soon as he saw them. He praised Geof Stone as a “lion of the Left” who, nonetheless, defends free speech, for all.

That word “nonetheless” is a fighting word. Conservatives will find it appropriate, because they are used to being stifled and bullied on campus. Many on the left will say, “What do you mean? It’s we who have fought for free speech throughout American history, and you who have so often been the stiflers and bullies.”

Sitting in his office — which has a wonderful neon sign, showing the phrase “Free Speech!” within a mouth — I ask Stone whether it is odd to be admired and praised by conservatives. He says it is. He believes that conservatives are free-speech champions of convenience: When it is they who need protection, they are all for speech; otherwise, not so much. I ask him whether he will allow that people in general, whatever their views, tend to be more interested in their own free speech than in others’. He will allow it, yes.

Stone was born in 1946, in the Bronx. He went to high school on Long Island. For college, he went to the University of Pennsylvania, and, specifically, to its Wharton School. Same graduating class as Donald Trump — 1968. Stone was not aware of the future president.

Stone, Trump, and a lot of other graduates were looking to avoid the draft. Stone toyed with the idea of a Ph.D. program, but his two roommates were going to law school. Maybe that would be all right? Stone did not actually know a lawyer, and neither did his family. But “there were a couple of good lawyer TV shows in those days,” he says.

The young man applied to the leading law schools and was accepted by all of them. He chose Chicago. Why? He had never been to the Midwest and knew next to nothing about this university — but his girlfriend was transferring to Northwestern (in Evanston, Ill., just north of the city). The night before he was to drive out from New York, she called him, to break up with him.

No matter. He fell in love with the law school and with the law. “More than half a century later, I’m still here,” he says.

He did leave the city to go to Washington, D.C., where he clerked for a Court of Appeals judge, J. Skelly Wright, and then a Supreme Court justice, William J. Brennan. I ask him about Brennan, of whom he has very warm memories: “an absolutely lovely person.” He also got to know Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose chambers were next to Brennan’s.

Moreover, Stone played on “the highest court in the land” — the basketball court on the top floor of the building. Among the other players was Justice White — “Whizzer” White, the former NFL star — who was then in his mid fifties.

Stone has known most of the Supreme Court justices of his time, including Antonin Scalia, with whom he taught at Chicago before Scalia joined the Court. I spot a photo of the late justice here in Stone’s office. There is also a special deck of cards. Scalia was part of a regular poker game with his law-school colleagues, including Stone. The game goes on. After Scalia died in 2016, Stone had decks of cards printed up with Scalia’s picture on the back of each card. These are the cards that the players now use.

From 1987 to 1994, Professor Stone was dean of the law school. From 1994 to 2002, he was provost of the university. While dean, he hired Barack Obama, who had just graduated from Harvard Law. Stone offered him a fellowship. He tells a story about the day Obama interviewed.

He, Stone, was a little late, so Obama spent some time talking with his secretary. She saw clear political potential. After Obama left, she said to Dean Stone, “You know, I think he will be governor of Illinois someday!” Later on, Stone would kid her, “You were wrong.”

Like all conservatives, I can tell a hundred horror stories about life on campus: its censoriousness, its restrictiveness, its illiberalism. In 2015, I went to Brown University to report on an underground forum there. Students had established this forum in order to have free and open discussions. These were impossible above ground. (Obviously, the students were ready to have the broader world know about their forum. They gave me the story — wanting to call attention to the measure they had been forced to take.)

Stone says that, generally speaking, Chicago is a place where students, of all opinions, feel free to speak their minds. I have some student testimony to the same effect. My impression is, if a Chicago student claimed to have been “triggered” and asked for a “safe space,” he would not get very far. Snowflakes are for wintertime.

(Incidentally, it is snowing outside my window in Chicago as I type.)

This university is a famously — you might even say notoriously — serious place. Yet Stone is well aware of conditions elsewhere. He knows about the shoutings down and the disinvitations and all the rest of it. Furthermore, he is concerned about the “chilling effect” on illiberal campuses. This does not refer to the weather. It means that, if a person has seen others punished for speaking out, he will keep his mouth shut.

That person does not have to be censored — he does it himself.

Several years ago, there was a rash of incidents that were bad news for free speech. In 2014, for instance, Rutgers University invited Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, to give its commencement address. She accepted. But protests against the invitation were so severe and hysterical, she begged off.

The president at Chicago, Robert Zimmer, surveyed the national scene and decided to form a committee: the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago. He asked Professor Stone to chair it. From it came the Chicago Statement, with its principles.

A sample: “Although members 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, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

The Chicago drafters never intended their statement to be adopted by others — it was for their university only. But that’s the way it happened.

Talking with Stone about the freedom of speech and its limits — and there are some, of course — I tell him a story. Rather, I make a confession. A few years ago, I heard my colleague David French make a speech about free speech, on campus in particular. Afterward, I said to him, “Maybe I’m a bad civil libertarian, but I just don’t think that Nazi and Communist groups have a right to form on campus. In the broader society, yes, but not on campus. University administrators should be able to forbid it.” David said, “You’re not just a bad civil libertarian, you’re not a civil libertarian at all.”

Stone chuckles. He then says, “The fundamental point is that free speech as a principle is about distrust of the wisdom of those who would decide what you can say and what you can hear and what you can’t say or hear. And I don’t trust anyone to make that decision for our society or for my university.”

He continues, “Many institutions today, if given the power to suppress speech, would probably prohibit Trump supporters from speaking on their campuses. I don’t want that. But they would say, ‘Those are horrible ideas, those people are terrible,’ right?”


I tell him another story, because talking to him about Left and Right — and their fashionableness, in different times and places — has given me a memory. When I was in college, I had a dear professor, an older woman, with whom I felt I could talk. I told her about my interest in conservatism. And I quoted William Safire to her: “I have to go down to the corner newsstand to buy a Hustler magazine, to have something respectable to hide my National Review in.” She laughed and said, “You know, when I was in college, we had to do that with our Nation magazines.” (The Nation is on the left, as you know.)

We understood each other.

Before we part, I ask Geoffrey Stone for a kind of final statement — a last word — and he says this: “I think, particularly at the current moment, nationally, we need to learn to listen to each other. I think that social media, cable news, have had a terrible effect on our democracy. More than ever before, both sides hear only the people who reinforce their own views.”

He goes on to say, “You have to learn to be open-minded and to listen to people you disagree with, try to put yourself in their shoes, understand why they feel the way they do, see the world through their perspectives, and then talk to them about it, and try to reason, instead of just automatically dismissing everything people say when they disagree with you. I think we’re in a serious moment in our history right now where that core value of how a democracy functions is at risk.”

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