Thursday, July 9, 2015

Academic Freedom is not the same as Free Speech

"Defend academic freedom -- even when you disagree", a blog entry at  Interesting article, but I think -- at least in my opinion, misses one point.  Academic Freedom does not apply to everything an academic says or does, ONLY to those things they say or do that relate to the curriculum area they work within.

Professor George, the author of the post, discusses Academic Freedom and 'right of freedom of thought and expression' as if they are synonymous.  I disagree.  For example when a Humanities professor espouses an opinion on a biological subject, they are expressing their freedom of thought and expression, but they should not be covered by policies on academic freedom.  I think considering any utterances by an academic as protected by academic freedom is expanding the purpose of academic freedom to dangerous levels.

We consider free speech a right in this country, but it is a right that comes with responsibilities.  You do have the right to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater, but you also bear responsibility for what happens next if there was no fire.  You can exercise free speech, but you also have to be able to handle the responsibilities that go with it.  Academics who utter statements, especially statements you might disagree with, are exercising free speech, but if it's not within their curriculum area, it is not academic freedom and deserve no special protection.

If an academic institution takes action against a professor due to comments they made, they should cautious when something truly is within the academic area the professor teaches, but any other comments are subject to different rules.  Academic freedom should not be a shelter behind which an academic can assume protection for anything they might say or do.

I've said this before and I will say it again.  Academic Freedom is not a license to say or do anything you want.  It is designed to allow professors to communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.  But in all cases, at least here in the US, the focus has always been within a specific curriculum area

The reason I consider this important does go back to the whole Creationism vs Science issue.  A teacher who teaches Creationism in a biology class is not exercising academic freedom.  Creationism has been found over and over again to not be scientific.  Claiming academic freedom for teaching a specific religious view is false because such a viewpoint doesn't belong in a science classroom.  That doesn't mean Creationism cannot be mentioned in a historical context, much the way Alchemy is mentioned in Chemistry.  But to actively teach it on par with actual scientific theories is an abuse of the concept of Academic Freedom.

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