The argument of this paper is set against the backdrop of a climate of intimidation, silencing, and fear that surrounds the discussion of several hot-button issues in academe, nowadays mainly having to do with race. An important and painful feature of this situation is that people on both sides of the issue feel vulnerable. The contribution of this paper is to help all involved to understand what academic freedom means and how it supports or fails to support the expression of controversial views. I show that a climate hostile to academic freedom is not an academic freedom issue per se. It becomes an academic freedom issue when there is harassment, silencing, or dismissal of those who take a position within the sphere of their professional competence. At bottom, academic freedom is an institutionally-protected privilege relevant, above all, to employment law. Neither First Amendment rights nor anything resembling academic freedom exist in the employee-employer relationship in the private sector. The paper discusses the origins of academic freedom in the United States and the major changes in the understanding of academic freedom over time, particularly those relevant to extramural speech and the rights of students. The paper concludes with a discussion of five contemporary threats to academic freedom, stemming from (1) social stratification within academe, (2) university branding concerns, (3) the actions of conservative state legislatures, (4) the constraints applied by institutional review boards, and (5) the demands of social movement activists.
March 30, 2021
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)