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  • Academic Freedom:The Continuing Challenge
  • Sara Dreyfuss and Marianne Ryan

I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

—Kurt Vonnegut1

Think, for a moment, about academic freedom. It is essential to the mission of the academy. It permits teachers, students, and educational institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without fear of sanctions or interference from government. Academic freedom includes the right to engage freely in the full range of activities involved in generating knowledge. For teachers, it includes the license to inquire into any subject; to present their findings to students, colleagues, and others; to publish their data and conclusions without censorship; and to decide what to teach in the classroom. For students, it includes the freedom to study subjects that interest them; to form conclusions for themselves; and to express their opinions. For librarians, it includes open and unfiltered access to the Internet; the right to collect materials representing a variety of perspectives, including resources on subjects that may be controversial; and the right to maintain the confidentiality of library users.

The fundamental statement on academic freedom in higher education in the United States is the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). Endorsed by the American Library Association (ALA) and more than 240 other scholarly and professional organizations, it asserts:

Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties … Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to their subject.2 [End Page 1]

The constitutions of many countries grant a separate right to free learning, teaching, and research. In the United States, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that academic freedom is a constitutional right under the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” In 1957, the court summarized the “four essential freedoms” that constitute academic freedom for a university. Academic freedom, the court said, means that an institution can “determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”3

What Academic Freedom Is Not

Academic freedom is not without limits. Gary Olson, a college president and scholar of cultural theory, explains:

Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to study and do research on the topics they choose and to draw what conclusions they find consistent with their research, though it does not prevent others from judging whether their work is valuable and their conclusions sound. Neither academic freedom nor tenure protects an incompetent teacher from losing his or her job.4

Olson adds:

Because academic freedom is specifically intended to foster the free exchange of ideas within a community of scholars, it does not protect … other types of utterances and behavior, such as slander or libel, bullying co-workers, lying on a curriculum vitae, or conducting one’s classes in irresponsible ways.5

William Van Alstyne, a professor of constitutional law, points out:

The false shouting of fire in a crowded theater may not immunize a professor of psychology from having to answer for the consequences of the ensuing panic, even assuming that he did it in order to observe crowd reaction first-hand and solely to advance the general enlightenment we may otherwise possess of how people act under great and sudden stress.6

Academic freedom also has limits for students. For example, it does not protect them from uncomfortable, unwelcome, or inconvenient teaching. Undergraduates who believe in the literal truth of the Bible’s Creation story are entitled to respect for those...


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