Freedom Creep

New books on academic freedom and free speech argue that the most serious threats to academic freedom and free speech are coming from within higher education.

October 3, 2014
 
istock.com

Professors and students are usually the biggest defenders of academic freedom and free speech on their campuses. But a pair of new books argues that students and faculty members themselves are degrading those values. Professors, one book says, are increasingly adopting notions of academic freedom that are too expansive, leaving the academy open to criticism from without. Students, meanwhile -- says a second book -- are increasingly trying to clip speech with which they feel uncomfortable, threatening free speech over all.

In Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (University of Chicago Press), Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished Professor of Law and the Humanities at Florida International University, argues that there’s been a slow but undeniable academic freedom “creep” spanning his career. That is, where the term’s emphasis was once on “academic,” he argues, it’s now on “freedom,” promoting a kind of mythical notion of the professor as revolutionary. That creep helps explain what Fish sees as various “schools” of academic freedom, for which he creates a taxonomy in Versions.

The first school, of which Fish is a member (and possibly the only member, he jokes), is called, “It’s just a job.” Fish says the school rests on a “deflationary” view of higher education, one in which higher education is a service offering “knowledge and skills to students who wish to receive them.” So being a professor here isn’t a “holy calling” or responsibility to advance world peace, Fish argues. Rather, it’s the responsibility to educate students and advance knowledge “by contract and by the course catalog” – no more, no less. And only work to advance those goals should he protected by academic freedom.

This definition will be familiar to followers of Fish, who in his books on academy politics and in regular commentary for The New York Times has argued that academic freedom doesn’t exist beyond one’s disciplinary expertise. It sounds limited, and it is. (Although it may be more inclusive than it first sounds: Fish said in an interview that he couldn’t “count the ways” in which the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had “botched” the retracted appointment of Steven Salaita earlier this year, including by violating his academic freedom. Since Salaita, the controversial American Indian studies scholar, was making his offensive tweets outside of class, Fish said, the university had no case for punishing him.) But Fish argues that this version of academic freedom is the strongest, in that it best preserves free inquiry.

“In the debates about academic freedom, one point goes largely uncontroverted,” Fish says. “Inquiry the conclusion of which is ordained before it begins is not academic; it is something else, and because it is something else it does not deserve the protection of academic freedom.”

Fish says this definition also stands up to common criticism from legislators and others outside academe who say academic work has become too political, and who use that as a reason to continue to disinvest in higher education. Professors have the obligation to “get it right,” and that means bringing politics into the classroom only when they’ll advance learning – not stifle it before it starts, Fish says. This protects the academy.

To prove his point, Fish spends much of the book describing and then critiquing four other schools of thought on academic freedom. The second, which he calls the “For the common good” school, is most similar to the American Association of University Professors’ definition, as articulated in its 1915 Declaration of Principles. It also shares many principles with the “It’s just a job” school – such as that instruction should be based on fact, not personal opinion. But this second school claims a connection to democracy, Fish says, in that it is the academy’s job, in part, to “train the democracy” by making public opinion “more self-critical and more circumspect.”

The third, “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school builds on that idea, maintaining that men and women of high moral and intellectual character within the academy aren’t necessarily subject to the same rules and regulations as everyone else. Case in point? The Urofsky v. Gilmore U.S. Fourth Circuit court case of 2000, in which a group of professors employed at Virginia institutions argued that their academic freedom was being violated by a state law that barred public employees from looking at sexually explicit material on their work computers. While a lower court sided with the professors, the circuit court overturned that ruling to uphold the state's right to ban its employees from looking at explicit material or pornography at work.

In Fish’s fourth school, “Academic freedom as a critique,” adherents understand the academy as “protection for dissent,” including dissent against the higher education’s current boundaries. Academic freedom here is a necessary “engine of social progress,” which makes it closely related to the fifth and final school in Fish’s taxonomy: “Academic freedom as a revolution.” In this school, the status quo reflects the “corrupt values of a corrupt neoliberal society,” and professors must work to change it. Fish names Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor at the University of Ottawa who practices “academic squatting” – hijacking a course with a given syllabus and turning it into a workshop for revolutionary activity – the “poster boy” for this last and most extreme vision of academic freedom.

Most everyone else falls somewhere between Rancourt and Fish, the author says. He attributed in an interview the academic freedom “creep” to some of the displaced hopes professors who were students in the 1960s still have for society, in that they’re using their classrooms as places to effect the kind of change that proved illusory in their youth. Fish sees evidence of that in the current Israeli academic boycott movement, which he opposes, and the numerous court cases involving academic freedom he dissects throughout the book. In most cases, he said, courts adopt his view that academic freedom is limited to one’s immediate teaching and research.

Challenging that is not only foolhardy but detrimental to the academic enterprise over all, Fish said, noting there are no real political “payoffs” for academic work.

“In the other schools, especially [the last two], you make the university vulnerable to political forces that either wish to defund or control it, and that will be so much easier if university faculty attack their causes in ways that are blatantly political. Someone can reason that if the faculty is acting political in the classroom, then why can’t you react to them politically?”

'Freedom From Speech'

Fish and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, haven’t always been on the same side of free speech and academic freedom cases. But in his new broadside, Freedom from Speech (Encounter Books), Lukianoff describes what he sees another troubling “creep” in higher education: increasing demands for censorship of potentially uncomfortable material. Lukianoff says he is particularly troubled by this trend since it’s driven mostly by students -- whom he’s defended in free speech cases for most of his career.

“This year has been really distressing to me because we’ve been at odds with students,” Lukianoff said in interview. “I like working with students and so to see them on the other side of the table kind of breaks my heart.”

The First Amendment lawyer and author of several earlier works on free speech says the recent, student-driven censorship phenomenon is a natural extension of the desire to be comfortable. But while being physically secure on college campuses is necessary for learning to take place, Lukianoff says, sometimes being intellectually uncomfortable is also necessary. In other words, enforcing intellectual comfort is fundamentally at odds with the goals of higher education.

“The increased calls for sensitivity-based censorship represent the dark side of what are otherwise several positive developments for human civilization,” he says. “I believe that we are not passing through some temporary phase in which an out-of-touch and hypersensitive elite attempts – and often fails – to impose its speech-restrictive norms on society. It’s worse than that: people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right.”

Lukianoff continues: “This is precisely what you get when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.”

Some of the most troubling censorship demands are what Lukianoff calls “disinvitations” of controversial speakers to college campuses amid student protests. FIRE has counted some 257 such disinvitation efforts since 2000. More than half have happened since 2009. In all, 111 of the efforts were successful – meaning the speaker did not give his or speech. Some 75 of those canceled speeches were due to universities revoking their invitations, as the University of Michigan did last year to Alice Walker, who has been a vocal critic of Israel.

Lukianoff said such revocations are especially concerning because they mean that universities are giving in to students’ demands. Instead, he said, universities should encourage students to attend such speeches and further engage topics about which they are passionate.

Similarly troubling to Lukianoff is the recent push for trigger warnings in course syllabuses, to alert students ahead of time to potentially sensitive material. In the book, Lukianoff traces the origins of trigger warnings to the internet, where bloggers have used disclaimers to alert their readers to sensitive discussions, such as those about rape. Now students have begun to expect them in their courses, Lukianoff said, infringing on the academic freedom of faculty members who may not want to use them, and potentially shielding students from valuable educational experiences. Lukianoff cited a proposed but tabled voluntary trigger warning policy from Oberlin College that named Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart as a potentially triggering book.

Lukianoff said he’s hopeful that the censorship trend will die down, but that he's concerned about its long-term implications for higher education, and the country.

“Ultimately, when you have an environment where [it’s allowed], people clump together in self-affirming cliques and that adds to the polarization,” he said. “It undermines campuses’ abilities to deal with serious societal issues.”

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