The American conception of academic freedom arose with the Progressive Era in the 1890s primarily because of social scientists who advocated for reforms that negatively affected financial interests. The press – muckrakers and establishment papers – actively participated in the debate over academic freedom that took place during that time. The attention of the press sometimes helped professors who had been dismissed, but it could also cause difficulties for professors whose extramural or classroom statements were sensationalized or misrepresented.
On balance, the press was supportive of academic freedom. In an analysis of press coverage of higher education between 1890 and 1938, Claude Charlotte Bowman observed that about 3/4 of articles reviewed from that period of time were favorably inclined towards academic freedom. Some of the more negative views on academic freedom came from the conservative press, particularly the New York Times. In response to an editorial regarding the case of Scott Nearing, John Dewey wrote a letter to the editor that noted that “the position of The Times in such matters is firmly established, and no one, I am sure, grudges economic interests such a competent organ.”
Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of negative press coverage of academic freedom of that period of time is the assuredness with which commentators staked out the boundaries of academic freedom and how colossally incorrect their appeal to common sense turned out to be. In response to the establishment of a committee on academic freedom by the Political Science Association, an editorial in the Times of January 4, 1914, noted that:
Somewhere there must lie the power as to what shall be taught, how, and by whom. It is inconceivable that the persons having this power and responsibility in, say, a college for young women should retain a professor who deemed it due to his conscience to teach the doctrine of free love and to advocate its practice. Or, to come nearer to the matters with which the American Political Science Association deals, it is not credible that a professor should continue to receive pay who thought it his duty to teach the doctrine of sheer fiat money.
And in 1899, the conservative Gunton’s Magazine warned of the dangerous views professors could hold: “They may be socialists, single-taxers, flying machine advocates….”
Arguably, what made the Edward Ross case so prominent in the historiography of academic freedom is its significant coverage in the press. Historian James Mohr has noted that “[i]n less than a month Ross had accumulated close to five hundred clippings […], which by his own count ran 29 out of 30 in his favor.” The negative press coverage affected the reputation of Stanford University for some time.
On the other hand, press coverage of professors’ extramural utterances and classroom presentations could cause them difficulties. Then as now, presidents were concerned over the public perception of their institution, and thus, then as now, when press coverage of a professor’s speech brought negative attention, presidents were eager to respond. For example, the case of the forced resignation of Willard Fisher which the AAUP reported on in 1916 involved a speech that Fisher had given in which he had entertained a thought experiment of closing churches on Sundays. What Fisher had wondered was whether closing churches on Sundays could encourage attendees to redirect their religious impulses towards public service. The headline in the New York Times read: “Close Churches on Sunday. Prof. Fisher of Wesleyan Would Like It as an Experiment.” As a result, the president of Wesleyan asked for his resignation.
Concern over the coverage of classroom speech by professors was significant enough that it is addressed at length in the AAUP’s founding document, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which notes that:
There is one further consideration with regard to the classroom utterances of college and university teachers to which the committee thinks it important to call the attention of members of the profession, and of administrative authorities. Such utterances ought always to be considered privileged communications. Discussions in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large. They are often designed to provoke opposition or arouse debate. It has, unfortunately, sometimes happened in this country that sensational newspapers have quoted and garbled such remarks. As a matter of common law, it is clear that the utterances of an academic instructor are privileged, and may not be published, in whole or part, without his authorization. But our practice, unfortunately, still differs from that of foreign countries, and no effective check has in this country been put upon such unauthorized and often misleading publication. It is much to be desired that test cases should be made of any infractions of the rule.
While, to the best of my knowledge, this legal argument has not survived, it is important to note that the concern has persisted – only that the technology employed has changed.