November/December 2021Vol. XXXIV No. 2

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression

Sally Haslanger

Academic freedom and the right to freedom of speech or expression are related, but distinct. The legal right to freedom of speech only limits the state (originally only Congress) from preventing speech, and the protection only goes so far. It doesn’t protect libel, solicitation, bribery, perjury, etc. And there are restrictions on time, place, and manner. It does not allow an individual to barge into the Supreme Court to make their own argument concerning a case or to show disrespect for a judge presiding in court. It allows private institutions to restrict speech even as a condition of employment, e.g., a company can fire someone for disparaging its products or revealing a trade secret, even if the claims are true. As Ronald Dworkin says, “Free speech, at its core, is the right not to be altogether prevented from saying something, not the right to continue to be supported and aided while saying it by those who think it is false or undesirable.” (Dworkin 1996, 184)

One defense of the legal right to free speech rests on a conception of deliberative democracy. In deciding how to organize our collective life, we should be open to and informed by a wide range of ideas, perspectives, and new information. We should not assume that we already have all the knowledge we need or that a belief is false just because it is unpopular. However, not all ideas are equally sound, and we should aim, together, to weed out confusions and mistakes. We cannot feasibly consider anew every idea that comes along, so we need to develop systematic ways of evaluating beliefs. Cass Sunstein suggests that an initial set of conditions for such evaluation might include: “arguments matter but power and authority do not; an absence of strategic manipulation of information, perspective, processes, or outcomes in general; and a broad public orientation towards reaching right answers rather than serving self-interest, narrowly defined” (Sunstein 1996, 94).

This conception of democracy inspired the American idea of academic freedom. In order to make good decisions, individually or collectively, we need to rely on a body of information. Given the complexity of any domain of inquiry, it makes sense to turn to experts.

European universities, as early as the ninth century, aimed to provide “communities of competent inquirers” (Haskell 1996, 45). These universities were supported by religious institutions, private donors, and governments; the nature and content of research was correspondingly restricted by those who paid the bills.[1] However, as means of communication increased, the communities of inquiry expanded to include research specialists across institutions and, in time, to form what we now consider disciplines. Disciplines provide communities of intensely interactive, skilled, critical inquirers who maintain an evolving set of standards for reasonable belief in a domain (Scott 1996, 175). Such disciplines (and related interdisciplinary programs) are positioned to contribute to a deliberative democracy, as long as they are not themselves managed by powerful interests and subject to strategic manipulation.

In the late 19th and early 20th c. there was concerted effort to ensure that appropriate conditions for public inquiry were met. John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and others established the American Association of University Professors in 1915 with the specific aim of articulating and protecting principles of academic freedom.[2] The issue of freedom arises at two levels: the freedom of disciplines to define for themselves, as a community of peers, the standards for their discipline; and the freedom of individual researchers to explore beyond the limits circumscribed by the discipline (Dworkin 1996, 183). These freedoms are institutionalized in tenure: members of the discipline determine the standards by which a researcher qualifies as a member of the community, and once a member of the community, the researcher is free to explore the ideas they individually consider worthy of their effort. Freedom of individual inquiry within a discipline is necessary so that its standards are exposed to critique and are responsive to new, even revolutionary, ideas. With the freedom of a community to shape a discipline, however, also comes the power to exclude some inquirers and their ideas. This can be justified as a necessary part of distinguishing better and worse belief-forming mechanisms, but it is also always a legitimate site of contestation.

This description of academic freedom is how it is supposed to work, in principle. We are all aware that in practice, things don’t live up to the principle. Social power and authority have shaped disciplines explicitly or implicitly by excluding women, persons of color, the disabled, members of certain religious groups, and all but the wealthy. And strategic economic and military interests have had a huge impact on the content of research and have shaped the standards of the disciplines: what counts as an interesting question, what counts as evidence, what methods are considered reliable, what outcomes are envisioned. Because marginalized researchers have succeeded in breaking through the tenure barrier, standards are changing; interdisciplinary programs often provide intellectual communities for such innovation. Such inclusive research is better suited, also, to provide the basis for public deliberation.

On this account, academic freedom is a freedom one has as a member of a discipline at an institution of higher education. Crucial here is a distinction between speaking as a representative of an educational institution and speaking as a member of the public. For example, if President Reif signs a political petition and puts his MIT affiliation next to his signature, the right way to do it is to add (or have the petition make clear) “for identification purposes only.” If he identifies himself on the petition as President of MIT, he should take steps to guard against any suggestion that he is signing as a representative of, or for MIT. In other words, he is signing it as a member of the public – he is exercising his right to freedom of expression – but not as President of MIT (though he may also be using the status and credibility MIT affiliation brings). Relying on or even indicating academic status can cause confusion: a faculty member may be taken to be speaking as a representative of a university or a discipline when they are simply speaking as a member of the public. And it can be tempting to take advantage of such confusion to claim authority. But the distinction matters when evaluating the rights and wrongs of speech.

All members of the MIT community are members of the public, and MIT should not limit our speech in public contexts, unless we purport to speak as representatives of MIT. This is where academic freedom comes in.

In what ways can MIT limit what someone says as an MIT faculty member? Given the purposes and principles of academic freedom sketched above, MIT cannot rightfully limit the content of a faculty member’s research or the conclusions drawn. It cannot legitimately tell me what to teach or ban teaching controversial material. However, MIT can limit some of my speech on campus – how I talk to students, how I interact with staff, etc. It can also limit some content of my speech in certain roles or contexts. For example, an admissions officer cannot, in their role, say that people from certain groups are not welcome at MIT or that they will be unsuccessful, even if they, as an individual, hold those beliefs; they are constrained by their role as representative of MIT. But things quickly get complicated.

If I speak as an MIT faculty member and make claims based on my research that go against MIT’s values, how does that connect with academic freedom? Academic freedom protects the right, as a researcher, to convey the results of one’s research (or other academic/creative production), even if it is at odds with the values of the institution, or the standards of the discipline. Our research represents MIT’s commitment to open inquiry and so the institution cannot silence us and remain committed to that value. But it doesn’t need to endorse our conclusions, and so even if we speak as a researcher at MIT, we cannot claim we speak for or represent MIT when we make the content of our research public. We speak as MIT faculty to the extent that we uphold the value of open and responsible inquiry.

The hard cases come when my speaking as a member of the public has played a significant role in public debate and is looking for someone to serve as its representative.[3] MIT would be within its rights not to choose me as its representative, if my position on public issues makes me a poor representative of MIT’s . I have no inherent right to serve as MIT’s representative. It is an honor to be in the role of representative, and MIT is within its rights to choose who represents it. MIT should stand behind its faculty’s right to speak about their research, but even there, MIT is permitted to select someone else to represent the institution on a particular occasion, if my conclusions or my reputation are at odds with the message MIT aims to convey. Representing MIT is not just a matter of freedom to speak. (Note that this does not tell us how to make an all things considered judgment about when to invite someone or rescind an invitation to represent MIT, or how that should be decided.)

I’ve just argued that MIT is within its rights to pick its representatives based on its values. Given the longstanding history of exclusion in the academy and the commitment to knowledge production, it makes sense to include a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as a factor in its decision-making. DEI enhances our ability to gain knowledge by expanding what experiences and perspectives are included in the research process.

One might argue further, however, that MIT should select its representatives based on a commitment to knowledge-based contributions to political debate; as noted above, this is one crucial function of universities.

There is a temptation to think that there are no experts on normative matters, and so no experts when it comes to political speech. But this is simply wrong. First, normative inquiry, i.e., inquiry into what we ought to do and what is valuable, relies on empirical knowledge of the domain in which action is being considered. Warranted intervention in the social domain depends on social scientific inquiry and engagement with populations not well-represented in the academy. Second, normative inquiry is disciplined. In deliberation and debate, we should give reasons for moral and political claims; as in the scientific domain, some forms of reasoning in the normative domain are more warranted than others. That said, however, the discipline of moral philosophy does not yield a single set of absolute moral truths, but instead a set of concepts and distinctions that contribute to richer, deeper, and clearer deliberation. The long history of the discipline has, of course, included exclusions and distortions, but there is no question that there are better and worse ways to engage in moral deliberation.

One of the insights of democratic theory is that any member of the general public ought to be free to share their ideas about how we, as a people, ought to be governed. Competing points of view should be carefully listened to and considered. But it doesn’t follow from this that all points of view are equally sound. In addition to upholding the value of DEI, MIT has reason to uphold the value of well-disciplined thought on matters of public concern. Controversial thought is not out of bounds, but arguably, certain kinds of undisciplined thought and speech should not be rewarded or supported. After all, expertise on matters of public concern is what universities stand for.

Works Cited

Dworkin, Ronald. 1996. “We Need a New Interpretation of Academic Freedom.” In Menand (1996), pp. 181-198.

Haskell, Thomas L. 1996. “Justifying the Rights of Academic Freedom in the Era of ‘Power/Knowledge.’” In Menand (1996), pp. 43-90.

Menand, Louis, ed. 1996. The Future of Academic Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scott, Joan. 1996. “Academic Freedom as an Ethical Practice.” In Menand (1996), pp.163-180.

Sunstein, Cass R. 1996. “Academic Freedom and Law: Liberalism, Speech Codes, and Related Problems.” In Menand (1996), pp. 93-118.

[1] See my earlier article in the FNL about academic plutocracy.

[2] Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020), my friend and colleague in philosophy at MIT, served on Committee A (the committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure) at the AAUP for many years and was a stalwart defender of academic freedom. She is in my mind, as I write this. Currently, MIT does not host a chapter of the AAUP; I suggest we should consider starting one.

[3] Who is MIT? In my view, MIT is not just the administration or the Corporation. It is a structured organization of roles and relationships with a mission statement, (soon) an explicit set of values, and a set of rules and regulations, that guide those who occupy the roles in fulfilling their responsibilities as members of MIT. To say that MIT “looks for” someone to represent it is to say that someone, functioning in their role at MIT, looks for someone to represent their unit, or the Institute as a whole.