I recently had a discussion that led me to a basic question: Why is the concept of academic freedom as a semi-protected activity limited by custom to people who teach in universities? Why doesn’t it apply to any person engaged in research and publication on issues important in our lives? What is the theoretical underpinning of the argument that non-faculty don’t have academic freedom in the same sense that faculty do? What is it that faculty actually do that is different from what I do, at least part of the time?
Is it that faculty need to be free to publish important books and articles? I have published four books as author or contributing editor (three with a university press), one of which is a five-pounder and is considered the definitive modern work in its field. I have published chapters in other major books, 36 articles or commentaries on education issues, 75 on ornithology (mostly in non-refereed outlets) and another two dozen that don’t fit neatly into categories. This doesn’t count work that I produce in my job as a college evaluator. I’m also the new book review editor for a small, well-respected refereed journal and a glorious but undiscovered poet.
Because I work as a college evaluator and routinely review faculty qualifications, I can say that my actual output of what would normally be considered scholarly work is quite similar to what I would expect of a mid-career professor at a mid-level college. In short, in terms of tangible product, I do what they do.
Is it that faculty teach? Let us define teaching. Let me know when you’re done -- with luck, I will have retired by then. I suppose we have an obligation to at least attempt to answer the question, but allow me to argue that teaching and learning take place all the time in all parts of society, whether or not a traditional cage is constructed around the putative teachers and learners.
Is the difference that I as a non-faculty member have been classified by society as fit for some tasks but not for others? By whose order? Under what theory? With what brief? Certainly as a state employee I am obligated to perform the tasks that are in my job description, and likewise obligated not to go about publicly trashing the goals of my employer. Beyond this, am I not free to pursue the truth wherever it may take me?
Universities have traditionally been assigned by society the role of pursuing truth and transferring knowledge in a semi-protected setting, if not beyond the reach of interfering powers, at least having some defenses against those powers. This is a good thing, but doesn’t it seem strange that a special kind of institution in society must be set aside for this purpose?
I do not think that the traditional collegiate cloister as our sole reservation for academic freedom works very well any more. The ability of independent scholars to operate outside institutions has increased along with the utility of the Internet. The Supreme Court wrote, in an era before the personal computer, PDA and cell phone (to say nothing of iPhone), that:
“Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” (Keyishian v. Board of Regents,  1967)
Where, and what, is the classroom today, 40 years downstream from Keyishian? If a friend of mine publishes a detailed study of hospital spending practices, molt strategies in the American Wigeon or the perfidy of Donald Rumsfeld on a blog, Web site or other nontraditional venue, and invites comment from all comers, isn’t that just as much a classroom as an enclosed space in which one human is bleating in person at a roomful of (mostly) younger humans? Certainly the gray area is taking on more and more layers and shades with the advent of more varieties of distance-learning.
To spend a moment longer in the relatively cramped legal arena, the Supreme Court has also granted certain kinds of academic freedom protections to universities themselves, under a theory that they as institutions have a special role in society and need to have some protection from unseemly attempts to influence their work. Yes, to be sure, that is true, but there are other institutions in society, e.g., publishers, think tanks, foundations; whose role is, if not the same in structure, surely overlapping in goal and function.
At a time when more and more people of all ages get their news and information off the Internet, and when young people of traditional college age do a vast amount of their fact-gathering online (whether the facts are, if you will, true, is another question), the argument that universities need a special protected status as our principal conductors of information and values to young adults has been losing weight for years.
We see more and more corporate sponsorships of research or faculty positions and degree programs that, as a practical matter, relate solely to the products of one or two companies. The idea that the university is separate from the pressures of the outer world (and therefore that people who work there should have a special status for themselves and their work) is getting harder to sustain. Should people employed by banks, supermarkets or governments who publish academic work be afforded protection under an academic freedom theory from retaliation by their employer if the employer happens to dislike the work? I can’t think why not.
When we have resources as good as, for example, Reginald Shepherd’s teaching-blog on poetry,  the argument that the traditional classroom is necessary as a baseline for the theory, practice and legal protections of academic freedom begins to look like an argument that a sufficiency of draft horses is necessary for national security.
Norms move forward. I argued a while ago ("Accrediting Individual Instructors," The Independent Scholar 18(1):10-12, Winter 2004) that we need to stop accrediting colleges and start accrediting teachers. The fact that a top-flight poet like Shepherd now contracts with students privately and engages in significant dialogues on poetry and culture via a blog is but one example of an educational trend that militates toward recognition that academic freedom, in its purposes, results and legal classification, needs to be decoupled from the nature of an individual scholar’s employment.
Academic freedom adheres to the purpose and function of academic inquiry, not to technicalities of institutional affiliation. Anyone who engages in inquiry and publication according to the norms of academe is entitled to the scholar’s woolen cloak. It may not protect against all enemies, but it serves to reduce the chill of unpopular thought.
Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon, where Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution allows him to publish what he pleases. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. He blogs at oregonreview.blogspot.com .