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Philosopher of law: This is why universities need the Chicago principles

Associate professor in the philosophy of law Jakob Holtermann supports the Chicago principles that Danish parliament debated 2 December. They protect academics' freedom, he says. But the principles are weakened by the fact that they come from the politicians, not the academics.

Universities need to fight the presumption that it should never be unpleasant to study at university. That you need to be spared from any ideas that you find problematic or offensive, and that something is wrong if you become acquainted with these ideas anyway.

This is according to Jakob Holtermann, an associate professor in the philosophy of law at the University of Copenhagen. And that is why he supports the Chicago principles that were debated in the Danish parliament Thursday 2 December.

»The Chicago principles can send the signal to students, instructors, and their peers, that the experience of being offended and indignant does not, in itself, mean that something wrong has taken place. It could well be so, but this is not necessarily the case. When you go to university, it is extremely important that there is a balance in your expectations.«

For associate professor Jakob Holtermann it is all about the freedom to teach – a flexible concept that, unlike the freedom of research, is not currently mentioned in the Danish University Act.

According to the associate professor, there is a need to protect the discretion of university instructors. They should not be subjected to interference, simply because they offend students or other academics. The Chicago principles can help ensure this, he believes.

The eight principles have been translated from a declaration adopted by the University of Chicago in 2014, and which has been endorsed by 82 American universities so far.

»The university is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters,« is one of the principles.

»It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,« is another one.

It is the Liberal Alliance party that has put forward the bill to inscribe the principles into the Danish University Act – in order to protect what it calls intellectual freedom at universities.

A certain reluctance

But is there not intellectual freedom already at Danish universities? Is free speech and free thought really under so much pressure that the Danish parliament needs to legislate for it?

Jakob Holtermann says that it is difficult to answer this. It is easy to point to anecdotes of students claiming to be victims, »good yarns from throughout the world«, as he calls it. But this does not mean that the problem in itself is huge – and certainly not here in Denmark.

We cannot allow those who claim to have been offended to define whether something has gone wrong

Jakob Holtermann, associate professor in the philosophy of law

There was feverish debate in Denmark when the University of Copenhagen passed a set of rules in 2018 confirming that it was »the employee’s or the student’s experience of being subjected to offensive behaviour that was the starting point«. This formulation was later removed from the regulations.

Holtermann, however, still thinks there is a need for the clear protection of the instructors’ freedoms, something that would ensure, for example, that they are not automatically called in for an interview with their manager if there is a complaint.

He says that he himself has had a number of students who expressed »reluctance« towards specific teaching materials. And when he signed featured comments on freedom of teaching in the press, he has been contacted by many colleagues who experienced things like it.

He wants a study, however, that examines how many instructors actually do feel that their freedom is under pressure.

Should we not wait for this study before adopting these principles? Most of the examples come from the US, not Denmark, and our universities are different. Do we need these principles?

»You could say: There’s no harm in having them. It’s a legal protection you can have in advance, so we can deal with the problems as they arise. The principles do not allow us to harass people indiscriminately.«

No harassment

Quite the opposite, he says.

He mentions point eight in the translation of the Chicago declaration being considered by the Danish Parliament: »The university may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, or that invades substantially the individual’s privacy«.

This is a key distinction, according to Jakob Holtermann. Between academically relevant material that gives offence or that is provocative. And between giving offence without academic justification.

The Chicago principles, for example, do not give him permission to retell »jokes about blondes ad nauseam or to make fun of transgender people«.

But some would say that the Chicago principles simply exempt instructors from taking responsibility for their abuse?

»That would be the accusation, yes; that they are just a way of making the rules so that everyone who is not affected by offensive behaviour can continue to play a game of power on oppressed members of other genders or races.«

There is definitely a risk that you could see this as yet another interference into academic freedoms.

Jakob Holtermann, associate professor in the philosophy of law

»But I’m not saying that it’s never wrong to give offence to someone. I show, for example, the Mohammed cartoons in one of my courses. But it is clear that if I start every lesson by going up to the Muslim students and shoving the drawing in front of them, it is quite clear that I have no pedagogical point with it, but am simply doing it to offend them.«

Can you distinguish objectively between the two things?

»That’s the big question. Where can we draw the line? We all struggle with this,« says Jakob Holtermann.

»But a clear premise is, that we cannot allow those who claim to have been offended to be the ones who define whether something has gone wrong. Because then we destroy all notions of process. Then the offended party is both prosecutor and judge. So there has to be a conception throughout the complaints system that there is an objective limit. And this limit has to be ultimately set by the top management at the university.«

A new political offensive?

Jakob Holtermann is not the only advocate for introducing Chicago principles to the university. A number of professors have called for it on the Danish news site Berlingske. Candidates from both the Conservative Students and the Free Forum groups said they supported it in the recently election to the University Board.

The bill which was considered Thursday however, does not come from the universities themselves. It comes from the Danish parliament. And not from any party. It comes from the Liberal Alliance.

Earlier this year, the party’s education and research spokesman Henrik Dahl co-authored a text that instructs universities to put a stop to the »excessive activism in certain research environments« and to »politics disguised as science«. Dahl then went on to attack and name researchers from the parliamentary rostrum, including some from the University of Copenhagen.

The text was adopted by a majority in the Danish Parliament and was subsequently criticised widely by universities for being an attack on the freedom of research. Jakob Holtermann was among the critics himself.

In a featured comment on the Danish-language version of the University Post, his colleague Associate Professor Thomas Brudholm writes that the universities themselves should adopt the principles, not the politicians.

»The universities should author their own declaration for a free and open debate and take the initiative from politicians who seek to decide what is good and bad research.«

The question is whether the Chicago principles are being exploited as part of a political value struggle that Jakob Holtermann himself is opposed to?

»I find this deeply unfortunate. There is definitely a risk that you could see this as yet another interference into academic freedoms. But the Chicago principles are the exact opposite. It is a protection of instructors and researchers against arbitrary interventions.«

What is the difference between the text in parliament and the Chicago principles?

»The text was decided on the basis of a specific criticism by individual researchers. You can easily read it as a threat that if you do not conduct a different type of research than what you are doing right now, this will hit you in the form of Danish parliamentary dislike.«

»Shortly after this, there was a regionalisation plan that appears to hit some of the subjects that the criticism targeted. It looks like an attack on the specific researchers.«

The Chicago principles are, on the other hand, a protection for researchers, instructors and students from »arbitrary curtailment of the freedom of speech, expression and teaching,« as Jakob Holtermann puts it.

»If there ever was a new proposal from politicians to actively intervene in our freedom of research, then I would invoke the Chicago principles because they protect academic freedom.«