Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Responding to Reader Mail


I appreciate Mr. Currin’s e-mail below in part because it allows me to clear up some common misperceptions regarding “speech” and “protected speech.” Mr. Currin writes:

If I should say in my physics classroom, “The value of the velocity of light has no connection whatever with the motion of material bodies,” my right to say it is fully protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, college authorities have the right, indeed the duty, to have me sacked for incompetence, because my teaching is at variance with professional standards in my field.

Mr. Currin is correct to say that he could sacked for such a statement, but he is wrong to say that his right to make the statement is “fully protected by the First Amendment.”  Let me be clear, if you can be lawfully punished for engaging in speech, then that speech — at least in that context — is not protected.  

No teacher has the “right” to present knowingly false information in the classroom. Thus, firing that professor not only doesn’t violate his “academic freedom,” it doesn’t violate his civil liberties.

Mr. Currin next says:

On the other hand, if I should say, “There is no credible evidence that global atmospheric temperatures have increased during the past ten years,” I am again protected by the First Amendment, but I am also protected by academic freedom—if I can cite the relevant climate data that lead me to this conclusion.

To take the point a little farther, if I tell my political-science class, “It is the duty of every citizen to refuse to pay his taxes if he disagrees with the policies of his government,” I am protected by the First Amendment, but not by academic freedom, since it is merely my opinion, not part of any professional standard.  

In the first example, courts have provided First Amendment protection when he teaches truthful material that is germane to the subject of the course, so once again there is little distinction between “academic freedom” and civil liberties.  

In the second example, he’s got it exactly backwards. It is far from clear that issue advocacy is a protected First Amendment right of professors in the public university classroom, yet issue advocacy happens all the time. Why? Because tenure, contracts, policies, and long-standing practices often give professors a degree of freedom (academic freedom?) in the classroom that extends beyond their First Amendment rights.

Finally, he winds up with the students:

To attempt to apply the concept of academic freedom to student speech is an absurdity.  The very reason they are in the classroom is to be taught the professional standards applicable to their field of study. As to their First Amendment rights, it is my duty to limit their expression for considerations of manner, duration, and relevance (not, however, for content).

A professor assigns a student to write a letter to her state representative in support of a positions she opposes. Does she have the right to refuse? Is that right to refuse a constitutional right or an exercise of academic freedom? Does the distinction matter? A professor refuses to grade a student’s paper because she disagrees with the student’s politics. Does the student have a right to a fair evaluation? What kind of right is that? A professor allows speeches in a speech class on topics of the student’s choice yet shouts down a speech opposed to same-sex marriage. Do the professor’s actions implicate the student’s rights?

Let’s be quite clear: students and professors both enjoy considerable civil liberties, and the extent of these liberties has been (and is still being) defined by case law. Those liberties are sometimes greater and sometimes lesser specifically because of the academic environment. Beyond those basic civil liberties, “academic freedom” as a concept generally exists as a matter of contract and can adopt so many different forms as to defy general definition.

When the debate about academic freedom is unmoored from its civil liberties foundation, the term begins to lose any real force. I’m reminded of the immortal exchange in Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory (paraphrasing):

Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell): “We’re going to skate to one song and one song only.”

Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder): “And what is that?”

Michaels (singing):  ”I’m gonna gitcha gitcha drunk, gitcha drunk, on my humps. My humps, my humps, my lovely lady lumps.”

MacElroy: “What does that even mean?”

Michaels: “Nobody knows what it means! But it’s provocative! It gets the people going!”

And so does academic freedom.


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