PC in Academia: Why Chicago Statement for Free Speech on Campus may be US’s Next Export to Sweden

Swedish academic watchdog Academic Rights Watch has documented many cases where teachers’ and students’ right to freedom of speech has been questioned by university managements and others, which has led to severe conflicts and has probably had a chilling effect on the discussion climate. We now urge all Swedish colleges, universities, student organizations, trade unions and other bodies linked to higher education to adopt the so-called Chicago Statement for maximum freedom of expression on campus.

Some of Academic Rights Watch’s (ARW) most notable cases concern the freedom of speech on campus. Here are a few examples for those of you who haven’t followed our reporting (the links in the text below lead to our Swedish site—English translations are available through google translate).

At Lund University we have the well-known Hesslow case, where the Professor of neurophysiology was asked by the management of the medical program to distance himself from certain formulations in his lectures on biological sex differences. It all culminated in an investigation of Hesslow for “discrimination.”

Or take the case of Göran Adamson, Associate Professor at Mid Sweden University, who, after lecturing on John Stuart Mill, was reported by a Muslim student, who claimed that Adamson had expressed the view that “religious people are miserable and hopeless and that religion is a desperate invention.” Adamson maintained that he only tried to put religion in a sociological perspective. The case led to an internal investigation.

But it is not just teachers’ freedom of speech that is limited. Just recall the case of Felix at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). Felix ended up in a debate with two classmates outside the classroom on whether or not recent immigrants to Sweden are over-represented as perpetrators of various sexual offenses. Felix compiled crime statistics, which was distributed to his fellow students who, however, felt offended by the information. Felix was then investigated for “disturbing acts or harassment”. An audio recording of the discussion became something of a classic: the management argued that feelings of being offended should be put before freedom of speech, while Felix, who appeared as a great statesman, eloquently corrected the management.

ARW’s Magnus Zetterholm thinks that it is unfortunate that freedom of speech is not always respected on campus:

-Having to be under investigation constantly for what you say and think is, of course, very stressful and has indeed a chilling effect on freedom of speech, Zetterholm says.

In order to maximize freedom of speech on campus in Sweden, ARW has decided to support the so-called Chicago Statement i.e., the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago.

– The Chicago Statement clearly defines the limits of freedom of speech within the academia. We now urge everyone to join the declaration by adopting it as a guide for their own organization. This applies to the universities themselves as well as to student organizations, trade unions and other bodies, says Zetterholm.

A prominent idea in the declaration is that is only justifiable to restrict statements, which undermine the fundamental function of the university. Otherwise, all opinions should be allowed. This also applies to statements that may be perceived as impolite or disrespectful.

– A common mistake made by university managements is to ban impolite or disrespectful statements. The Chicago document makes clear that this is unacceptable—the important thing is not the form, but the free debate, Zetterholm points out.

The Statement also emphasizes that no one is allowed to restrict the freedom of speech of others because they feel offended or perceive the views put forward as offensive.

– If you do not agree, instead of silencing the opponent, try to counter the claims with intellectual arguments. Teaching such an approach is one of the university’s most important tasks, Zetterholm says.

The declaration also rejects so-called deplatforming, i.e., various forms of activism aimed at preventing others to express an opinion with which one does not agree, for example by disrupting public lectures.

– On the contrary, according to the Chicago Statement, it is the task of the universities not only to promote a lively and free debate, but also to protect freedom of speech when others try to limit it, says Magnus Zetterholm at Academic Rights Watch.