Academic Freedom

AAUP Members Are Warned of Growing Threats to Academic Freedom

June 13, 2014

The last few academic years have brought a wave of new threats to academic freedom, arising both from controversies fanned by social media and from pressure on state lawmakers to restrict speech at public colleges, members of the American Association of University Professors were told here on Thursday at the group’s annual conference.

Both Henry F. Reichman, who is chairman of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom, and top officials of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group known as FIRE, described a host of recent efforts to punish colleges’ faculty members for controversial statements or to limit what faculty members can say.

Among perceived attacks on academic freedom they cited were the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse administration’s denunciation of a faculty member’s email critical of Republicans, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s controversial demand last fall that Gene Nichol, director of its poverty-law center, alert his bosses beforehand and include language explicitly distancing himself from his institution in writing columns for a local newspaper.

When faced with outside pressure to discipline faculty members for statements they have made, college administrators too often take "the position of shoot first, ask questions later," complained Peter Bonilla, associate director of a FIRE program that defends individual rights.

In delivering the conference’s opening plenary address, Mr. Reichman argued that college administrations should do more to defend the speech rights of their faculty members, and should adopt and have "the spine to enforce" policies intended to prevent students from using social media to disseminate instructors’ remarks to unintended audiences.

Citing a recent Chronicle survey that found four-year colleges have been slow to develop policies governing online speech, Mr. Reichman challenged the idea that faculty members are most free where no such policies are on the books. "We need policies," Mr. Reichman said, "but what we need are good policies—policies that guarantee academic freedom."

Unintended Audiences

Both Mr. Reichman and the representatives of FIRE characterized electronic communication as having greatly changed the landscape for academic freedom.

Mr. Bonilla argued that, when it comes to protecting academic freedom, "there is probably no more dangerous frontier right now than online speech."

Mr. Reichman said social media, which faculty members are using both for personal reasons and in connection with research and teaching, have blurred the line separating private and public avenues of communication. Twitter and Facebook posts, for example, both can circulate well beyond the author’s list of Twitter followers or Facebook friends.

He cited recent incidents in which students have distributed surreptitiously recorded videotapes—some of them heavily edited—of instructors making controversial statements. "Is this a violation of academic freedom? Yes," he said. "How can we stop it? I don’t know."

Faculty members, Mr. Reichman said, must be aware of how far their speech can be relayed. "Electronic communications can, like it or not, make classrooms a far more public space than they were in the past," he said.

Among the more vexing questions posed by social media is how to ensure faculty members are not perceived as speaking for their institutions. While it is fairly easy to include in printed academic papers language making it clear that the authors speak only for themselves, routinely inserting such language in tweets or Facebook posts can be seen as impractical. Many college, nonetheless, require such disclaimers, regardless of the medium.

"It should be assumed," Mr. Reichman said, "that you are speaking for yourself."

Statewide Disputes

Both Mr. Bonilla and Mr. Reichman took a dim view of a social-media policy adopted by the Kansas Board of Regents last month, after considerable debate. After an initial version of the policy was widely denounced by faculty leaders and free-speech groups as far too draconian, the board revised it to drop some speech restrictions and to affirm the value of academic freedom. The changes, the two speakers said, did not fix the initial policy so much as leave it internally contradictory.

Mr. Bonilla and William Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, also expressed alarm over recent attempts by state lawmakers to restrict the activities of faculty members. Some South Carolina lawmakers, for example, have sought to financially punish the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina-Upstate for assigning to incoming freshmen books with gay characters and themes. Lawmakers in both Maryland and New York have considered proposals to withhold funds from colleges that financially support organizations calling for a boycott of Israel.

"This has, unfortunately, been kind of a banner year," Mr. Bonilla said, "for legislative interference in the academic freedom of university systems."

Correction (6/13/2014, 1:13 p.m.): This article originally misspelled the surname of an official at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He is William Creeley, not Creely. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.