Barnard College has become the site of the latest flare-up in an ongoing struggle between faculty and university leaders for the control of university communication platforms. On October 23, the department of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies posted a statement of solidarity: “We support the Palestinian people who have resisted settler colonial war, occupation, and apartheid for over 75 years, while deploring Hamas’s recent killing of Israeli civilians.” The statement was to be followed by links to resources for understanding the “genocidal violence and ethnic cleansing that we are now witnessing.”
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Shortly afterward, the university removed the statement from the departmental website. The move was in pursuit of the university’s “website governance policy” (established in November, after the department’s initial statement), which specifies that all subdomains of barnard.edu Internet domain are property of the college and all of its content “constitutes speech made by the College as an institution.” Barnard resources such as “College letterhead, College website, College-sponsored campus communication tools or systems” may not be used to “post political statements.”
Members of the department created a private website where they republished their statement of solidarity and protested the “increasing curtailment of free speech and academic freedom at colleges and universities across the U.S.” They and their supporters issued a public letter decrying the “overt act of censorship” by the university in removing the statement from the departmental website. The New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Barnard’s president characterizing the website policy as a form of “prior restraint” inconsistent with academic freedom.
Barnard is hardly alone in debating such issues. Princeton University recently tabled a policy aimed at formalizing procedures for units of the university to issue political statements. The University of California system has been mired in a debate over whether to ban such statements, which would supplement a longstanding policy against the use of “university equipment” for “political purposes or activities.” Institutions across the country have been having similar debates. The events since October 7 have provided a new context for those debates, but the issue has been brewing for years.
It is a fundamental tenet of American principles of academic freedom that individual scholars must be afforded the fullest freedom to engage in research and publish scholarship and to introduce controversial but germane material into their classes without fear of university reprisal or censorship. Likewise, members of the faculty are not to suffer institutional consequences for their private political expression or activities.
Given these longstanding principles, Barnard College unsurprisingly exempts from its restrictions on “political activity” the creation and publication of faculty research or “academic materials” and allows the posting of research and “academic resources” on its website. It likewise protects political activity “in a personal capacity” that is “not attributable, in reality or perception, to the College.” There are no doubt some gray areas in such policies, and it is essential that universities apply them in a consistent and content-neutral fashion.
On the whole, academic freedom and the freedom of expression of professors will be better protected if institutional actors like academic units and university presidents refrain from issuing political statements and units of the university avoid using their tools of communication for political expression.
For departments qua departments to issue political statements is to assert that those sentiments are not just personal, but professional.
Institutional statements put that modus vivendi at risk. Universities cannot distance themselves from political expression that professors might engage in while conducting their teaching duties or in utilizing university resources like web pages and social-media accounts. When professors use their privileged access to university-provided platforms to express political opinions, the university is forced to take ownership of the resulting speech. Professors who act in their role as university employees are necessarily liable for discipline for that conduct. Professors shield themselves from those repercussions by speaking as private individuals and not as employees.
Institutional speech will necessarily be held against the institution. If the institution engages in controversial political activities, other political actors can and will push back. As colleges attempt to navigate an increasingly hostile political environment, silence is often golden. If individual units on campus can easily go rogue and engage in institutional speech on their own initiative, it is the university that will suffer the political consequences. An individual department posting controversial political statements on its official website invites political retaliation not only against itself but against the university as a whole. Self-preservation dictates that the university be able to control its own institutional speech.
Another set of concerns involves the direct pressure put on individual scholars by the proliferation of institutional political statements. Individual members of the faculty are free to engage in individual political expression or to associate with others to express themselves collectively, and universities should be diligent in protecting the freedom of individual professors to do so. But individual members of the faculty also have the freedom to remain silent on matters of controversy and to choose their own time and manner of expressing their political views. They should not, as a condition of employment at a university, be dragooned into the political activities of others. Departmental statements make that impossible. Dissenting individuals are forced either to hold their tongue and allow statements to be issued in their name or to wade into a political controversy when they would prefer not to do so. Faculty members can always speak in their own name. That is an exercise of free expression. To attempt to speak in the name of others is rather an infringement on free expression.
For departments qua departments to issue political statements is to assert that those sentiments are not just personal, but professional. As such, they may also become professionally relevant to evaluation of current and future members of the faculty. It is an important protection of the academic freedom of individuals that institutions not take the personal political views and activities of professors into account when making decisions regarding hiring and promotion. It is possible to construct a firewall protecting professors from being punished for their political opinions by distinguishing such personal activities from professional activities. If, however, a department as such has specific political views, then the political views of prospective members of the faculty are suddenly professionally relevant and cannot be regarded as off-limits. Junior faculty would justly worry that their professional future will be damaged if they do not go along with the political activities of their senior colleagues. Dissenting members of the faculty will justly believe that they are made outsiders to their own department as a consequence of their political beliefs.
Universities protect a realm of academic freedom and free expression by limiting the domain of institutional speech. The institution as such does not weigh in on either scholarly or political controversies. Individual members of the faculty should be left free to develop and express their own views — because the university does not elevate orthodoxies. When universities cross that line and expand the realm of institutional speech, they threaten to shrink the freedom of the scholars who work within those universities.