Judgements about academic freedom and freedom of speech are implicated in myriad small interactions that occur daily in universities: a teacher conducts a classroom discussion that becomes heated; students assemble to hear a controversial lunchtime speaker; an academic engages with a research partner who wants to limit the release of research results; a discussion in a faculty meeting turns highly critical of university governance; a dean or head of a research centre faces a complaint about a controversial speaker or an outspoken academic. It is neither possible nor desirable for university leadership to be involved in these issues at every point, nor can we realistically expect staff and students to make detailed reference to university policy in the course of day-to-day university life. What universities require is a culture of openness based on a broad understanding of free speech and academic freedom.

How is such a culture to be inculcated? Here we take some inspiration from the University of Chicago – not from the specific details of the Chicago Principles, but from the way they are given life within the institution. To begin with, the Chicago Principles are a statement of the identity of that university. While its abstract principles are much quoted, it is not often noted that the statement starts by recalling four key historical moments that affirmed the university’s commitment to free speech, starting from the early twentieth century and leading up to the present day. Moreover, the principles conclude with the following statement: “The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our university’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.”

Read as a whole, the Chicago Principles are as much about the University of Chicago as they are about freedom of speech. They construct an identity for the university, and this identity is instilled in students throughout their time at the school. Famously, John Ellison, the dean of students at the College of the University of Chicago, wrote to incoming students in 2016 to remind them that a defining characteristics of the university is its “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression”. That practice has continued each year.* More than the specifics of the letter, which reflect the Chicago Principles, we are impressed by the way the university continuously engages with and reinforces its principles.

The University of Chicago is not the only university to communicate with students in this way. Other college presidents in the United States have also written or spoken to their students on the issue of freedom of speech. In 2018, the president of Princeton University asked students, faculty and staff to read Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Freedom of Speech over the summer break, in time to discuss it in the first semester.**

We have no wish to be prescriptive as to how exactly other universities might foster a culture that respects both academic freedom and free speech. Universities are best place to decide on matters of tone and emphasis themselves. What is potentially so powerful about these strategies is that they encourage members of a university community to embrace the values of a specific institution in its own context and history. It also recognises that commitments to freedom of expression and academic freedom are not guaranteed. On the contrary, they are values that a university community must collectively imbue in all its members.

Speaking or writing to students and encouraging the university community to educate themselves is only the beginning of this process. We envision that there are many ways, and many forums, in which universities can discuss these matters. We hope that Australian universities will take up this challenge in creative ways that draw on the history and values of their distinct identities. We hope, in doing so, that their subject will be academic freedom as well as freedom of speech. It is a commitment to these values in the hearts and minds of the university community, more than in any specific statement or policy, that would respect the inheritance and fulfil the promise of our universities.


* The University of Chicago tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces’. John Ellison, Letter from the Office of the Dean of Students to the Class of 2020 Students, 2020,
** Karin Deist, ‘Eisgruber Selects Book on Free Speech and Universities for Pre-Read’, Princeton University Office of Communications, 7 February 2018,

This is an extract from Open Minds: Academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia by Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone, (La Trobe University Press, RRP $29.99)

Carolyn Evans is vice chancellor of Griffith University.  Adrienne Stone is director, Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies at the University of Melbourne


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