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'Academic Freedom in the Wired World'

March 6, 2008

Robert M. O'Neil has been a player on academic freedom issues from many perspectives. He has been a university president (University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin System), a legal scholar (law professor at U.Va.), and First Amendment advocate (director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression). He has also been chair of the American Association of University Professors' committee on academic freedom. That background informs his new book, Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University, just published by Harvard University Press.

O'Neil recently responded to e-mail questions about the themes of the book.

Q: How do the severity of threats to academic freedom today compare to other periods in U.S. history?

A: While there has surely been no shortage of grave threats to academic freedom in the early 21st century, current conditions are not comparable to the dark days of the McCarthy era, which were clearly the worst of times within memory. Especially with regard to threats from sources that were rampant in the early to mid 1950s -- disclaimer-type loyalty oaths, legislative investigations, campus speaker bans, security screens and the like -- even the gravest of current governmental pressures tend to pale in comparison. What suggests to some observers an ominous shadow of McCarthyism is, however, a new set of threats to free inquiry on the university campus -- from private “vigilante” groups that target professors and even students on Web sites and blogs, legislative demands for “balance” and removal of “bias” from the classroom, mounting restrictions on corporate-sponsored research, and constraints on electronic communications that would not be tolerated in print media.

Q: How has the 9/11 aftermath most changed academic freedom?

A: Despite much early apprehension, reprisals against outspoken faculty critics in the months after the terrorist attacks proved to be far milder than might have been feared. Remarkably few adverse personnel actions resulted for established scholars and teachers -- in sharp contrast to McCarthyism -- and the few that did occur reflected highly unusual conditions. Yet there have been grave consequences in several other areas. Notably harsh has been the exclusion or denial of visas to visiting scholars -- not only from the Middle East and Islamic countries, but from other nations where 9/11 and terrorism have no visible role. Several of these actions have been successfully challenged through the courts, though a disturbing number of other barred visitors (notably Islamicist Tariq Ramadan) remain beyond U.S. borders without either adequate explanation or avenues of recourse. The other most notably affected area is that of research; the vague concept of “sensitive but unclassified” has been far more widely used to constrain university investigators without formal classification, and thus chill freedom in the laboratory, despite the absence of a legally reviewable justification for such limitations. In other (though probably more predictable) ways, the use of biohazardous materials has been further restricted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Q: You note the rise of corporate (as opposed to government) monitoring of what academics say and do. What is the significance of this?

A: Although government sponsorship of research remains the primary source of support for the academic laboratory, subvention by certain corporate sectors has increased significantly in recent years, with resulting challenges for academic freedom. Revelations about excessive intrusion, oversight and constraints on publication and other use of research data have been especially troubling for research funded by such industries as pharmaceutical, tobacco and timber. In each area there have been serious conflicts, placing universities and their scholar/investigators under a degree of corporate scrutiny that would be subject to legal challenge and probably removal if imposed by governmental sponsors. University scientists have also faced growing threats from subpoenas and other legal demands for disclosure and production of research data in process – disruptive at best, and disabling to the integrity of the research process at worst.

Q: How has the Internet changed the way academics are scrutinized?

A: Electronic communications have surely enhanced academic discourse in myriad ways. Such new media have, however, also brought novel threats to the privacy, integrity and autonomy of campus exchanges. E-mail messages are, for example, widely assumed to be “accessible” or “divertible” under conditions where comparable treatment of print mail or telephone calls would be unthinkable on policy grounds if not clearly unlawful. Though some institutions have commendably developed policies that more sensitively protect electronic messages and postings than the law requires, many others continue to treat such communications as largely unprotected. States have also imposed novel restrictions on access to electronic material -- most notably Virginia’s draconian law (later sustained by a federal appeals court) that bars any state employee (faculty included) from using a state owned or state leased computer to access sexually explicit material without a “supervisor’s” permission for a bona fide, agency approved purpose. Although no other state seems to have followed Virginia’s example, the potential for unprecedented restrictions on scholarly access to electronic research materials has been established.

Q: You are known as a staunch advocate for free speech rights. Since you note that many of the developments that concern you are legally protected, how can and should academics protect themselves?

A: Since some of the most ominous new threats against the academic community come from sources that permit little or no legal redress, novel safeguards need to be considered. Clearly the most effective antidote to blog and other Internet postings designed to disparage professors is a vigorous response in the same medium and, where appropriate, other media. Faculty organizations as well as individuals should be readier than most have been to respond immediately and vigorously to baseless and scurrilous charges, and to seize both traditional and new media opportunities to correct the record. Often a second wave or recurrence of such accusations can be anticipated and even preempted through careful analysis and creative foresight. On the relatively rare occasion when such attacks could incur legal liability -- for defamation or misappropriation of intellectual property, for example -- formal recourse may be worth pursuing, even where the prospect of relief in the immediate case may be uncertain. Colleges and universities, their governing boards and presidents, also bear an obligation to speak out forcefully in defense of their facilities when such legally invulnerable pressures occur.

 

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