Academic Freedom and the Public

What rights does academic freedom afford scholars when they are in the town square?

I recently published two posts here that sought to clarify the relationship between academic freedom and no-platforming. Together, they led to the complex position that academic freedom sometimes supports no-platforming, but that sometimes no-platforming violates academic freedom.

Over the course of that two-part discussion, I proffered the view that the public doesn’t owe scholars academic freedom. If members of the public no-platform a university scholar who is giving a speech in the town square (and not as part of a university-organized event), I maintained, they might be violating some right or freedom, but they’re not violating academic freedom.

Over on Twitter, frequent friend and guest-star of this blog Trevor Holmes disagreed with me. Don’t members of the public owe professors free expression as an extension of those professors’ academic freedom, Trevor wondered?

I replied that members of the public often extend special courtesy and respect to professors in virtue of their professorial role, but that professors have no right to demand any special freedom from the public.

Academic freedom, I argued, is extended by the university to its members in virtue of those members’ formal association with the university. If the university violates a professor’s academic freedom, or fails to furnish legal and other supports for a professor’s academic freedom, then the professor can seek remediation via litigation, arbitration, or formal censure. Members of the public, on the other hand, are not answerable in this way. On my pragmatic theory of academic freedom, then, the public cannot be said to owe or extend academic freedom to scholars.

It is worth noting, however, that even if the public does not owe academic freedom to university scholars, it (the public) is implicated in scholars’ academic freedom in two ways.

First, the legislature can pass laws that affect professors’ academic freedom. (We saw this yesterday in our discussion of direct and indirect constitutional supports of academic freedom and of the 1988 law that ended tenure in the U.K.) Insofar as members of government represent and are answerable to members of the public, the public has the power to strengthen or weaken academic freedom.

Secondly, the special courtesy and respect that some members of the public extend to professors in virtue of their professorial role is the origin of both academic freedom protections for extramural expression and corresponding responsibilities.

Recall that weeks and weeks ago, we briefly discussed academic freedom protections of professorial extramural expression. We need to protect professors’ ability to speak in the public sphere, and indeed to do so outside of their disciplinary expertise, I argued, because we need our Einsteins to be able to speak to the public about world peace, not just physics. Many people lend special weight to the views of professors; expounding their views to the public is one of the social roles professors bear. Their universities can’t, therefore, fire them for doing it.

Again, though, this special role and special regard brings with it responsibilities. In particular, professors engaging in public discourse in this way must not misrepresent their expertise, and they must make clear that they do not represent their universities.