Research
Academic Freedom

What It Is, What It Isn't, and How to Tell the Difference

By Donald A. Downs

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Executive Summary

A complete copy of Academic Freedom: What It Is, What It Isn't, and How to Tell the Difference [384KB] is available for download as an Adobe Acrobat file compatible with Adobe Reader.

Today's university is rife with competing claims about academic freedom. Although academic freedom is similar to the freedom of speech that all Americans enjoy, it has developed over time into a more specific guarantee for scholars and teachers. This paper explains what is meant by the term and to whom it applies. The paper places academic freedom in its historical, institutional, and legal contexts and offers guidelines for deciding when and where the protection of academic freedom should apply.

At its core, academic freedom is the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of inquiry. It applies to institutions as well as scholars, and to students as well as faculty. It is bolstered by court cases and tradition and given particular strength by faculty tenure. The tenets have been discussed over the years through formal statements of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

As a First Amendment right, academic freedom applies only to scholars in public institutions because the U.S. Constitution protects liberty only against illegitimate governmental or state action and law. The Supreme Court has endorsed this protection, but has not given much guidance for its application.

Faculty have the freedom to teach or research as they wish, subject to accepted professional norms of competence and responsibility, but the school employing them has the right to determine acceptable teaching standards. The school also has the authority to evaluate the competence of the scholar for purposes of hiring, retention, and promotion. And recently, based on a 2006 Supreme Court case, lower courts have begun to give schools greater authority to curtail faculty speech conducted in the course of official duties.

Also holding academic freedom is the academic department, which has professional standards that it has a right to uphold. The student, too, has academic freedom. As stated in the AAUP 1967 statement on student freedom, students have a right to due process and free inquiry, which includes the right to take "reasoned exception" to data and views presented in class.

In the past, the academic freedom of the institution and the individual were largely in harmony. The contemporary university, however, is torn by a cultural clash between traditional notions of individual freedom and recently emergent ideologies that stress the need to be sensitive and caring, especially toward members of historically oppressed groups. Many institutions have adopted speech codes and related policies that restrict what faculty members and students can say about matters relating to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the like.

The legal status of speech codes covering the faculty has not been decided, probably because courts have struggled to balance faculty freedom with the academic institution's power to determine teaching standards. Courts have been much more critical of student speech codes.

Thus, many academic freedom issues exist in an uncertain, gray area. Even so, there are principles that can guide one in judging who has the freedom in any particular circumstance. Professional responsibility requires that instructors and researchers abide by basic standards of intellectual integrity; they must not seek to indoctrinate students; and they must not present propagandistic or fraudulent material as truthful. At the same time, it is wise to make freedom the default position because an enlightened citizenry aspires to encourage honesty and courage in teaching and research.

The complete paper is available for download as an Adobe Acrobat file compatible with Adobe Reader.


 



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