A Call to Protect Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom, First Amendment

By: Valerie Nye

Institutions of higher education are seeing an increasing number of challenges to the principles of academic freedom that have seemingly been embedded in higher education since the establishment of American universities. Students are challenging intellectual freedom by demanding trigger warnings for courses and discussions. Speakers are being invited and then disinvited to speak at campuses across the country. The interpretation of Title IX has led to concerning allegations of censorship and has caused an untold number of self-censoring experiences. Tenure and the freedoms that tenure has provided faculty in the past is also threatened.

Postcard painted image of Cobb Hall at the University of ChicagoThis notion, however, that academic freedom has always existed in academic institutions in the United States is inaccurate. At a recent keynote address given at the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) annual conference, Geoffrey Stone (First Amendment scholar and professor at the University of Chicago Law School) addressed an audience of college and university faculty, staff, and administrators, outlining the history of the First Amendment in America’s institutions of higher education. He explained that academic freedom is a principal, and it’s fragile and vulnerable, especially when powerful business is involved in the academy and when the country is at war.

Stone called on those present to defend academic freedom when it is under attack, because the ways academic freedom is practiced and understood is malleable and defined by each generation. Academic freedom must be defined and defended.  Stone recently served on a committee at the University of Chicago. The committee developed the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, in which academic freedom is defined for the University of Chicago.

Benjamin Franklin quote: Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speechIn part, the report explains that the University is committed to “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” Stone told the audience that other colleges and universities have embraced the report and have used the body of the report to create their own definitions and statements about academic freedom.

Stone reflected on intellectual freedom historically and culturally and acknowledged that our colleges and universities exist in a flawed society. In our society, the burden of free speech falls on people who are marginalized. He called upon the academy to resist silencing people that may feel vulnerable or silenced because they hold a minority voice or opinion. In conclusion, Stone explained that successful institutions of higher learning must teach students to challenge their own beliefs and prepare students for living a life “filled with curiosity, boldness, and with courage.”

Valerie NyeValerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books including: True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library, she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking on lakes. Contact her at valnye@gmail.com.


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