5 Rules for Dealing with Disruptive Events

The Committee on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct at the University of Chicago has released a new report detailing suggestions for dealing with students who shout down speakers and otherwise disrupt events, either as individuals or in groups.

Minimizing Disruptive Conduct with Discipline and Education

After calling attention to the University’s previous Freedom of Expression report (i.e. the Chicago Statement), the committee recommend five steps to remedy the problem of students and others disrupting events. Their suggestions are:

  • The current All-University Disciplinary System should be replaced with a revised centralized disciplinary system.
  • As it supports protest and dissent, the University should revise its procedures for event management to reduce the chances that those engaged in disruptive conduct can prevent others from speaking or being heard.
  • The University should modify its existing approach to disruptive conduct by individuals who are not currently affiliated with the University.
  • The University needs a more robust program of educational programming to ensure that students understand the rights and responsibilities of participating in the free-speech commons at the University.
  • The University should amend Statute 21, which defines and prohibits disruptive conduct, to make clear, among other things, that “persistent and serial conduct may in the aggregate rise to the level of disruptive conduct even if a single instance of such conduct does not.”

The committee hopes that these changes will limit the amount of disruptive conduct on campus by educating students about the importance of free speech and by providing sanctions for disrupters.

Key Constructive Principles Guide Free Speech Policies

Of special interest are the “key constructive principles” that the committee relied upon in making its suggestions. These are as follows:

  • The speech that takes place at the University is first and foremost determined by the faculty, other scholars and students present at the University.
  • Norms of respect, civility, openness and inclusion are essential to enable speech from everyone at the University. A restrictive, hostile, unwelcoming climate will shrink expression, while a rich, friendly, inclusive climate will enable speech to thrive.
  • At the University, we share a free-speech commons, by which we mean the communal forum, shared by everyone who participates in the life of the University, in which free expression takes place and that is subject to certain reasonable rules if the commons is to continue to thrive.
  • The fundamental operating principle of the University free-speech commons is one of decentralization and local creation of expression supported by central authority to ensure that the University’s free speech values are upheld fully.
  • The University operates in this fashion because doing otherwise would be antithetical to the core idea that knowledge is best created by individual faculty members, other academic appointees, postdoctoral researchers and students.
  • Protesters are fully within their free-speech rights to counter and object to speech, as long as they are doing so without blocking or disrupting the free-speech rights of others.
  • Disruptive conduct may itself be a form of speech, but that does not mean that it is a protected form of speech. Like other forms of civil disobedience, disruptive conduct may lead to disciplinary consequences for those engaged in such conduct.
  • The benefits and burdens of a robust free-speech commons will not be distributed evenly, and the University itself can and does speak to address that fact when warranted.

Read the whole report for detailed suggestions on turning theoretical principles into actionable policies on campus.