three perspectives on academic freedom | Today
By Greg Varner
Three perspectives on academic freedom were presented by a trio of speakers at the latest Useful Knowledge Workshop hosted virtually by the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.. Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, GSEHD’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives and Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration, presented one of three hour-long sessions and also moderated the event. in general.
“Think of today’s workshop as a buffet of ideas,” Wright said. “We want to expose you to different viewpoints.”
The first session, called Academic Freedom 101, was presented by Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education programs at PEN America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending free speech. With so much energy spent portraying today’s campuses as intolerant of diverse viewpoints, Friedman offered a much more nuanced view of where we are and how we got here, as well as tips for encouraging open and respectful exchanges on campus. His comments were informed by PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Guide.
Some of the key ideas presented by Friedman were that freedom of expression and the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) can be compatible values; that in an open and equitable society, knowledge institutions – schools, universities, bookstores, libraries – have unique obligations to these dual values; and that freedom of expression is under threat in many places around the world, with people being imprisoned or even killed for their speech.
All societies, Friedman said, make decisions about how ideas can be expressed. The question is, where do we want to draw the line between total freedom of speech on one side of the spectrum and total regulation of speech on the other?
“The United States falls somewhere in the middle” of this spectrum, Friedman suggested. He briefly traced the role of various progressive movements (such as those advocating for birth control, sexual liberation, greater secularism, women’s rights, and workers’ rights) in the history of freedom advances. of expression in the United States. In 1860, Frederick Douglass gave a speech calling for freedom of speech as a bulwark against slavery.
Today, Friedman said, “A lot of people are pushing in different directions when it comes to free speech.” From the left, there are calls to regulate hate speech or “cancel” the use of language that some find harmful; on the right, there are concerns about critical race theory, LGBTQ+ issues and actions deemed by some to be unpatriotic, such as kneeling during the national anthem.
Under the judiciary’s interpretation, Friedman added, some speech restrictions are acceptable as long as they are applied in a neutral and consistent manner. On a college campus, it is reasonable to insist that people not walk around shouting through megaphones at night, as long as there is no explicitly political excuse for the restriction.
“Around the world, the United States has the highest tolerance for politically offensive speech,” Friedman said, “and for speech that really goes to, and probably beyond, the line of decency at which most people think of when they think of a civil and respectful society.
Since the beginning of the last century, efforts have been made to protect the freedom of professors to research and publish; teach; express internal criticism without losing your job; and participate in public debate. Universities have generally been allowed to regulate these matters internally.
“A lot of what’s going on right now is deeply anti-intellectual,” Friedman said. “A lot of people who show up at school board meetings and lobby to remove the books don’t seem very interested in compromise.” In open, fair and democratic societies, he added, “we should be able to have an open and fair conversation.”
Still, Friedman said, some degree of friction on campus is a good thing. “Respect,” he added, “implies an obligation to understand what may offend and why, to avoid words and actions that do so, even when there is no intention to do so. TO DO.”
Critical Race Perspective
During the second hour-long session, Wright presented a critical racing perspective. The central question he posed is: who does the First Amendment protect in our current jurisprudence, and who is left behind?
“In a society as big as ours, as diverse as ours, where people have diverse opinions, we need freedom of expression,” he said. “In a democracy, if we don’t have the right to speak, we might as well not be allowed to vote.”
After a brief explanation of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as less a single theory and more a way of seeing things as a whole, Wright offered a hypothetical counter-story set in an imaginary state where the CRT and the affirmative action were prohibited. Wright’s scenario illustrates his contention that a ban on CRT or affirmative action is not neutral, despite the fact that reinforcing neutrality is given as the justification for such bans.
“As a lawyer, I really believe in free speech,” Wright said. “I believe the way to fight the floor you don’t like is with more floor.”
Academic freedom is a special kind of free speech, Wright said, enforced more by contract and custom than by the courts. It refers to the ability of teachers, students and educational institutions to acquire knowledge without “unreasonable” political or governmental interference.
“If you want a marketplace of ideas,” he concluded, “maybe you shouldn’t restrict the marketplace.”
A libertarian vision
In the final session, a libertarian perspective was offered by Adam Kissel, visiting scholar on higher education reform at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
People are drawn to the academic environment, Kissel said, because they want to participate in a common search for truth. Privileging another value, such as social justice, over truth is like being in a religious institution, which chooses its own truth as its starting point.
The university, he said, can be conceptualized as “interlocking spheres of academic freedom”. University administrators and leaders may require faculty members to behave in certain ways; similarly, deans and department heads may impose additional requirements. Each academic discipline imposes its own constraints; in Kissel’s example, a history teacher is not allowed to teach a chemistry lesson.
These interlocking spheres continue down to the classroom, where a teacher exercises considerable freedom within given constraints. Students also have freedom. The best government, in liberal theory, allows the maximum freedom for the individual.
“You can say whatever you want, and what you say is protected, just like anyone else,” Kissel said. “The important thing is to be able to argue together and think together. We need each other to challenge our ideas and see the errors in our own thinking so we can try to do better. The reasons and the reasonings are what counts. Even when an opponent is entirely wrong, he added, it can help us refine our arguments.
The workshop concluded with a Q&A moderated by Wright and Christy Anthony, GW’s Director of Student Rights and Responsibility. What, asked Wright, should students know about academic freedom?
“If I had every student’s ear, I would like to share a few things,” Anthony said. “GW’s statement of student rights and responsibilities explicitly states that academic freedom is not just the freedom to teach and research, but also the freedom to learn; and it is seen as a requirement for full exploration of ideas, sometimes even offensive ideas.
As with any form of speech, she added, there are limits. Freedom of expression “is not an unlimited right, neither for professors nor for students, but it is a preeminent value of the institution. Fully exploring ideas, and those that are controversial, is essential for learning. »