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Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth believe in academic freedom, but not the way it’s come to be understood in 2022, with social media spewing hate (among other things) and with colleges employing many adjuncts, generally without the job security that is part of academic freedom.
Bérubé and Ruth argue in their new book, It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press), that college and university faculty should adopt and enforce academic freedom policies that distinguish the broad definitions of the First Amendment (which, after all, include plenty of hate) from a new definition of academic freedom for the public good. Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, and Ruth is a professor of film at Portland State University. They responded to questions via email.
Q: Many professors have long viewed the First Amendment as the best assurance of academic freedom at public colleges and private colleges that agree to follow it. What’s wrong with the First Amendment to secure academic freedom?
A: What’s wrong is that the First Amendment has no bearing on academic freedom, because the First Amendment has no relation to scholarly expertise. It forbids the prior restraint of speech by the state and certainly doesn’t demand or expect that that speech be responsible or informed in any way. Moreover, free speech is an individual right. Whereas academic freedom, as a collective right of the faculty, insists that professorial research and teaching be autonomous from external influence—donors, trustees, legislators, journalists, passersby—because the professoriate has established rigorous systems of peer review that vet knowledge so that the search for truth (or justice, or goodness) is undertaken in intellectually legitimate ways.
As Robert Post puts it in Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State, the First Amendment has to do with democratic legitimation—that is, the belief that we can all participate in public debate without fear of repression or reprisal by the government—whereas academic freedom is about democratic competence, or the development of regimes of expertise that establish that some forms of speech are more knowledgeable and reliable and can function as resources for an informed citizenry. This distinction is not widely understood, which is one reason millions of people are taking their medical advice from Joe Rogan.
Q: Why does it matter that much of the speech you discuss is spread on social media?
A: For two reasons, one of which is we have learned that a global system of mass communications that connects two billion humans worldwide is not like a great big coffee shop in which people exchange reasoned ideas about the good life and a just society. It is more like an incubator of campaigns against shadowy networks of pedophiles operating out of pizza parlors, reckless charges of gay teachers “grooming” children and calls for mass violence, insurrection and genocide. The other is that social media speech, for professors, is usually “extramural” speech, which is where academic freedom overlaps with free speech in confusing and paradoxical ways.
We take an entire chapter to explain this, so it’s hard to condense here, but the upshot is that in extramural speech, there’s an inverse relation between a professor’s expertise and freedom: professors have more leeway when they’re talking about matters in which they have no expertise than when they’re speaking about areas of their expertise (the classic example being the Holocaust-denying historian who is unfit versus the Holocaust-denying engineering professor who is just a crank), because the latter kind of speech arguably has implications for judgments about their fitness to teach, whereas the former doesn’t.
Q: How do you tell whether a faculty member’s views are truly beyond the protections of academic freedom?
A: We propose, basically, that this be a question for a jury of their peers. We want to assure our readers (and especially our potential readers) that we have no intention of trying to adjudicate every case in the country. We have a strong sense that, for instance, a professor of health-care policy who takes a high-ranking government position and proceeds to dispense medical misinformation in the middle of a pandemic has made a pretty good case for his unfitness. Likewise for a professor of media studies who has no idea what a “reliable source” is and goes about spreading QAnon-quality conspiracy theories on campus and off, or a professor who believes in theories of racial or cultural hierarchy so fraudulent that they might as well involve calipers and head measurements.
Someone raising controversial questions in their fields that some subgroup of their peers, even if it is a relatively small subgroup, find credible and worth continuing to pursue is one thing—a legitimate thing. It’s quite another to recycle long-debunked ideas by attempting to force those ideas back into the academic arena in the name of “free speech” without being able to adequately defend them (whether it be through peer review in credible outlets or in response to a convened panel of faculty peers).
Q: You cite Princeton University’s Peter Singer and John Yoo of the University of California, Berkeley, as examples of professors whose work includes the offensive and the valuable. How would you treat them in terms of academic freedom?
A: Pretty much the way they’re being treated now. Here’s what we say in the book: “In the case of Singer, we can only suggest that people should ignore his views on human beings with significant intellectual disabilities, a topic about which, despite the volume of his writings on it, he remains underinformed and remarkably incurious. His work on animal rights and on inequality, by contrast, remains extremely important. Similarly, we imagine that John Yoo can be defended for his work in other areas of law, areas that do not involve the commission and justification of crimes against humanity.” We’re saying that it’s possible—though admittedly not easy—to value one aspect of a scholar’s work while also saying that no sensible person should take that scholar’s work seriously when they advocate torture or infanticide.
Q: What does academic freedom look like if your views are adopted?
A: First, it would take the adjudication of disputes involving academic freedom out of the hands of administrators, where it too often resides now, and put it in the hands of faculty peers. This has long been considered best practice by the American Association of University Professors, but it is not consistently followed, and too many cases today fall outside the purview of peer review. For example, faculty in contingent positions are rarely afforded due process when their research, teaching or extramural speech comes under fire. Administrators can appease partisan forces by simply not rehiring instructors who have become the focus of manufactured outrage. On the other hand, there are those professors whose privileged positions bestow upon their speech a credibility that makes their spread of misinformation and disinformation particularly dangerous. You could say that such actors undermine rather than enable the work universities are supposed to do for democratic societies, which is precisely to discriminate between high-quality and low-quality speech so as to inhibit the development of alternate realities rooted in power, special interests and conspiratorial delusions.
Second, because the academic freedom committees we would like to see in institutions across the country would operate with a high degree of clarity around the distinction between free speech and academic freedom, they would understand their work within the context of what has long been considered academic freedom’s justification—that is, the common good. Academic freedom must be grounded in the common good, and the common good is itself an intelligible concept only if what Charles W. Mills calls nonideal (that is, not colorblind and abstract but historically and reality-based) forms of equality and justice are as highly valued as is freedom.
If we do not presume the equal dignity and value of all humans, we will inevitably create regimes of abstract “freedom” that privilege some groups over others in the name of a specious universalism. Our hope is that the procedural component of academic freedom—the deliberative process, with authority distributed among a horizontal panel of peers—will help shape outcomes more consistent with its philosophical underpinnings in the common good. Instead of getting hung up on whether or not an individual has the right to put forward this or that view, they might focus on whether the views put forward are intellectually legitimate and are credibly in the service of a diverse, complex and—let’s hope—functioning democracy.