Academic freedom

Friday, September 13, 2002

Colleges and universities, as the training ground of new generations of thinkers, are a common source of controversy concerning what should be taught. Administrators at some public institutions of higher learning, in an effort to promote the values of diversity and equality, have in some cases tried to persuade professors to refrain from voicing certain viewpoints — even from pursuing certain fields of study — that could be seen as working against those ideals.

“Academic freedom,” as the phrase is most commonly used, describes the right of teachers to conduct their classrooms and studies in the way that they believe to be most consistent with a pursuit of truth. Though this concept is not explicitly addressed in the First Amendment, it has been adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court as a freedom protected alongside the other First Amendment values. In a 1967 case, Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, the Court declared that academic freedom was a “transcendent value” entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.

While noting that “time, place and manner” restrictions may be placed on First Amendment rights, the Court in its 1972 decision Healy v. James stated that “the precedents … leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s support for academic freedom, administrators at some public colleges and universities continue to try to stop faculty from researching certain areas, publishing their findings, or making unpopular statements. Recent years have seen attempts to prevent studies of racial difference and employment policy at the University of Delaware and the history of homosexual communities in the Pacific Northwest at Idaho State University, and to punish a creative writing professor in Alaska for her exploration of child sexual abuse. Cases arising out of school-initiated censorship are almost invariably settled or decided against the school.

Another type of content-based censorship has also occurred. Some state legislatures have tried to silence professors even when colleges have not. In Missouri, a professor’s article on pedophilia led the state Legislature to cut $100,000 from the University of Missouri at Kansas City budget. Such actions are almost invariably resolved in favor of the professors. As the Supreme Court held in its 1957 decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire that “for society’s good … [p]olitical power must abstain from intrusion” into “the intellectual life of the university.”

Generally, professors may research or speak on any question that is of “public concern” without fear of official reprisal. This principle is not without uncertainty, however. Academic freedom will not cover personal attacks, criticisms or comments that excessively hamper the mission of the university, or expression that does not specifically address a public concern.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some schools have challenged the idea that academic freedom should protect the right of a professor to voice support for those who would “bomb the Pentagon,” to use the school’s resources in advancing pro-war opinions, or to convene a forum to criticize American foreign policy as the cause of the attacks. Only time will tell how the courts will deal with the unusual challenges presented by the threat of terrorism.

Finally, it is important to remember that private universities are governed by a different set of rules than their publicly funded counterparts. Because private schools are not under the control of the government, they are not legally required to assure the same liberties to their administrators, faculty or students. The discussion in this section is applicable only to state-run institutions.

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