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The Freedom to Teach



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The February 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains an interesting article on the sad state of professors’ academic freedom. The article mainly highlights professors who are speaking outside the classroom (whether they are criticizing university grant-management or discussing a presidential search), but what about in-class speech? The Chronicle article is largely silent on this critical aspect of academic expression. Do professors have the right to communicate truthful information that is germane to the subject of the class? As my ADF colleague David Hacker writes, yes they do, but that right is under attack:

 In Hardy v. Jefferson Community College, the [Sixth Circuit] held that an adjunct professor’s use of racial and sexual slurs during a class on social deconstructivism and language was constitutionally protected speech. The professor taught a summer course on interpersonal communication. During one class, he presented a lecture on language and social constructivism, wherein students examined how language is used to marginalize minorities. The professor solicited examples of words used to marginalize, and a few students offered racist and sexist slurs. An African-American student objected to this and complained to the college, which then fired the professor. The Sixth Circuit found that the professor’s speech was protected by the First Amendment because it was germane to the subject of the class. The Chronicle article fails to even discuss Hardy.

Take another example: If you were an adjunct science professor at a community college and were teaching a class on human heredity, you should have the ability to answer a student’s question about heredity and homosexual behavior, right? Under Supreme Court precedent and the Hardy case, yes. But if you worked in the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, your employer would say no. SJECCD terminated June Sheldon’s employment when this very situation happened in 2007. The ADF Center for Academic Freedom filed suit on behalf of Ms. Sheldon and is awaiting a ruling from the federal district court on SJECCD’s motion to dismiss.

If the AAUP really is “aggressively monitoring — and looking to wade into — legal battles over faculty speech” then the Sheldon case should be front and center.  After all, if professors can’t use their professional judgment regarding course material they are uniquely qualified to teach, why have a professor at all?  As Hacker notes, the alternative is obvious — the university could just make students listen to “Curriculum on Tape.” 



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