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Academic freedom and freedom of speech

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By Rob Cuthbert

In universities worldwide the debate about academic freedom and free speech continues, which is just as it should be. Meanwhile journalists in the popular press seem to have decided that political correctness and the ‘snowflake generation’ have made it impossible for anyone to debate anything in universities any more. But for those journalists, ‘research’ usually consists of looking at other journalists’ opinion pieces and referring to an alleged ‘free speech’ ranking from Spiked. This greatly exercised Registrarism’s Paul Greatrix, whose vituperative blog on 16 February 2017 said that as usual the new ranking was “sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking repression in the higher education sector are paraded in the quality press”. As if to prove his point, a report from the Adam Smith Institute on alleged left-wing bias in academia was attacked by Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole), aiming to debunk what he called this sinister new addition to the debate. The report was called Lackademia, though the URL was blunter: it read “Left Wing Bias Paper”.

Beyond the mass media there is a more informed debate. A faculty committee at the University of Minnesota enunciated four principles of free speech in a March 2016 document which occasioned considerable comment, for and against, in the US higher education media: ‘University of Minnesota Board of Regents policy guarantees the freedom “to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline.” The protection of free speech, like the related protection of academic freedom, is intended “to generate a setting in which free and vigorous inquiry is embraced in the pursuit of ‘the advancement of learning and the search for truth,’ in the words emblazoned on the front of Northrop Auditorium.”’ The four principles they set out are:

  1. A public university must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons.
  2. Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful.
  3. Free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.
  4. Even when protecting free speech conflicts with other important University values, free speech must be paramount.

The redoubtable Stanley Fish (Yeshiva University, New York City) weighed in with his argument that ‘Free speech is not an academic value’ in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 20 March 2017.

Jordan Peterson (Toronto) is an outspoken critic of what he calls “compelled speech”, including the mandatory use of gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular “they”. He was invited to McMaster University by a student group to participate in a panel on 17 March 2017 on free speech and political correctness. The other three panelists withdrew and a group of students with a bullhorn and other devices shouted down his attempted speech, making it impossible for him to be heard. The incident drew comparisons with a recent similar event involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College in the US. The Middlebury College protest turned violent and provoked widespread comment in the US HE media, prompting the College to issue a statement which provoked further disagreement. The Southern Poverty Law Center sums him up this way: “Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has become one of the most influential social scientists in America, using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women, and the poor.” Colleen Flaherty reported the McMaster event for on 21 March 2017.

A complex series of events at the University of Missouri saw the university president and the chancellor of its Columbia campus resign, and a faculty member fired for intervening in a student protest revolving around the racial abuse of black students. Interim president Hank Foley and chair of the MU Faculty Council Ben Trachtenberg set up an Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Protests, Public Spaces, Free Speech, and the Press. The Committee’s  report worked its way through various university authorities, leading to a set of policies which will come into force on 1 June 2017. Trachtenberg has hailed it as a success for shared governance in tackling issues of freedom of speech.

Alex Morey and Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote for FIRE on 21 March 2017 about blue chip Wellesley College:  ‘In an email to fellow faculty yesterday afternoon, a committee of Wellesley College professors made several startling recommendations about how they think future campus speakers should be chosen. If implemented, the proposals by the faculty Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity would have a profound impact on the quality and quantity of voices Wellesley students would be permitted to hear.’ They said: ‘While paying lip service to free speech, the email is remarkable in its contempt for free and open dialogue on campus. Asserting that controversial speakers “impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley,” the committee members lament the fact that such speakers negatively impact students by forcing them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.” They point specifically to a recent appearance by Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnisa self-described feminist who has criticised Title IX implementation and a “culture of sexual paranoia” on campuses.

In this case my sympathies are with FIRE and against those who would shout down or disinvite speakers whose views they oppose. But all such initiatives arouse passion, and so they should. Advocates and opponents of controversial beliefs, political correctness, trigger warnings, no platforming and the like go to the heart of the academic enterprise and cause us to re-examine our deeply-held values and beliefs about the purposes of the university, and why we do what we do. And this is the point. We are unlikely to agree, but while we can defend the Voltairean sentiment – ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ – nothing is lost.

Some of the material in this blog is taken from the April 2017 edition of SRHE News. SRHE News is available only to SRHE members; for more information about membership see

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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