Limitations on Academic Freedom

April 9, 2011

I’ve been looking at other colleges’ websites to see what they say about academic freedom, especially with regard to external speakers.  I’ve also been looking for what they say about allowable or not allowable speech on campus with regard to race, ethnicity or gender — for example what is said in harassment policies.

The American Association of University Professors does have a forceful statement “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes (1994).”  It says: “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.”

And it says, arguments “to forbid the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, or ethnically demeaning speech,” “grounded in the need to foster an atmosphere respectful of and welcoming to all persons, strike a deeply responsive chord in the academy. But, while we can acknowledge both the weight of these concerns and the thoughtfulness of those persuaded of the need for regulation, rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified. An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas—and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant. Indeed, by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.”

Nevertheless, I’m finding that many colleges’ harassment policies could be read as prohibiting certain kinds of statements with regard to gender or race.  I think this is an area of academic freedom that needs further exploration.

In rummaging about, I found an interesting Convocation speech by Russell K. Osgood, then President of Grinnell College, on “Diversity and Free Speech on College Campuses: Recent Developments” (August 25, 2004).  In it, he argues there are not many limits to academic freedom:

Are there things or statements that aren’t protected by academic freedom? Well in a classroom setting a criminal act, such as an assault or murder, would not be immunized. Nor would a slanderous statement be immune from prosecution. Nor would sexually harassing behavior be immune. So, while someone may be free to say something, he or she may lawfully be prosecuted for certain statements. And colleges and universities also take the position that certain statements of, say, threats aimed at a single individual or also of totally non-germane teaching, may give rise to disciplinary action, or in extreme cases, dismissal. In some rare instances, faculty can even be disciplined for diverging from core beliefs of the institutions. For instance, a Catholic theologian at a Catholic college can be dismissed for holding heretical viewpoints. Faculty can’t violate copyright laws or infringe patents or engage in a criminal conspiracy in a classroom setting without liability.

But our core belief is that very wide latitude needs to be accorded to faculty and students in an educational environment, latitude to say wrong things, unfair things, crazy things, untruthful things, and controversial things for our purpose is education and education requires substantial latitude and freedom. And, of course, we are less willing to believe that there is a single truth than previous generations.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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