Two Welcome Contributions to the Conversation on Academic Freedom and Free Speech


Joan W. Scott, Professor Emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study and former chair and current member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and Christopher Newfield, Professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, member of the Academe magazine advisory board, and author of The Great Mistake, a most devastating critique of university privatization (see my review in the current Academe), are two of the most important and insightful faculty voices today.  In the past two days Newfield has published an essay at Inside Higher Ed, “Feeding a Dangerous Fiction,” on current campus free speech controversies, and Scott has been interviewed at length by Bill Moyers on his website.  Both pieces are worth reading in their entirety, but here are some excerpts.  First from Scott’s interview with Moyers:

Moyers: Back in the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) railed against universities, artists, writers and journalists, his followers howled along with him in trying to persecute their perceived enemies. As you listen to what’s happening today, do you ever hear McCarthy’s voice resonating in your head?

Scott: I do. In some ways it’s even worse today. The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death. McCarthy was scary, but not like that. There’s been a lot of talk about left student groups violating the free speech of the right. And certainly there are examples of students shouting down speakers whose political views they don’t want to hear, views they think don’t belong on a university campus. I certainly don’t support that kind of behavior. But what’s not been covered to the same extent is the attack by the right on people with whom they disagree. A large number of university teachers have been targeted for speeches that they’ve made, they’ve been harassed and threatened. Take the case of Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She gave a commencement speech at Hampshire College in which she called Trump a racist and a white supremacist. Fox News carried it, and she received hateful emails, among them death threats — she’s African American — so there we threats to lynch her too. She canceled all of her speaking engagements because the threats were so violent. They make McCarthy look tame in comparison. McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats: “I have a gun pointed at your head.” So there’s something now about the unleashing of violent hateful speech that is more prevalent than it was even in the days of Joseph McCarthy. . . .

Moyers: In your lectures and essays you use a term that we don’t hear very often today. You say the pursuit of knowledge is not an elitist activity but a practice vital to democracy and to the promotion of the common good. What do you mean by the common good and how does academic freedom contribute to it?

Scott: What I mean by the common good is that we understand we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves, that we live in societies together and must help take care of one another because you never know when you’re going to need to be taken care of by others. And it’s not enough to say that your family or your church is going to take care of you. Societies are collective entities, we’re meant to be connected to one another; the function of government is to administer that connection. We’ve increasingly lost that sense of community, of the notion that there is something we contribute to and benefit from that is called the common good. I think I would date the beginnings of that loss to the Reagan administration and to the notion that somehow we were all separate individuals who only ought to be interested in ourselves. There were a number of court cases in the early ’80s when class-action suits were brought, only to be thrown out by Reagan judges on the grounds that individual injury had to be proven, that you couldn’t use statistics about discrimination in the labor force. You had to have individual cases and each one had to be remedied as an individual matter. There was the tax reform movement that treated progressive income taxes as assaults on individual autonomy rather than what they are — a shared responsibility for ourselves and others in the society that we all live in. People began to say they didn’t want to pay property taxes any longer because they had no children in schools (and most property taxes were used to support the public schools). As if the education of society’s children didn’t have an impact even on childless people! The common good is the notion of shared collective responsibility and reciprocity. It’s that that we’ve lost. . . .

Moyers: So colleges and universities contribute to understanding the need for a social contract — pursuing knowledge and understanding is important to responsibility and reciprocity. You’ve said that there is an important distinction between the First Amendment right of free speech that we all enjoy in some circumstances and the principle of academic freedom that refers to teachers and the knowledge they produce and convey. What exactly is that distinction?

Scott: Well, free speech is what we all have and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Academic freedom refers to what happens in the university, particularly in the classroom, and to the importance of the teacher having the right to teach and share  what he or she has learned, has proven her competence to teach, having gone through a series of tests and certifications including research and writing to demonstrate her abilities and knowledge. I don’t think students have academic freedom in that sense but they do have the right of free speech; they can express themselves, but their ideas are not subject to the tests of the judgment of their peers or to scientific affirmation as  teachers are.  A biology teacher does not have to accept a student’s essay that insists creationism rather than evolution is the explanation of how we got to be where we are. That student is not being denied his right of free speech when he’s given a low grade for not having learned the biology. So the university is the place where the pursuit of truth is taught, the rules for learning how to pursue it are explained, and students begin to understand how to evaluate the seriousness of truth. Those are incredibly important lessons, and only the teachers’ academic freedom can protect them because there will always be  people who disagree with or disapprove of the ideas they are trying to convey. There are students whose religious upbringing is going to make them feel really uncomfortable in a class where certain kinds of secular ideas are being presented. There are students whose ideas about history or sexuality are going to be similarly challenged to question, to affirm or to change those ideas. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be exposed to them; that’s why they’re at school. That’s why they come to school and to university: to be taught how to think well and critically about material that they’re being presented with. But it’s the teacher who is certified to teach them how to do that. . . .

Moyers: Do you think that the strategy on the right is to provoke situations that can be used to demonstrate that it’s the left that is shutting down freedom of speech today?

Scott: I do, yes. I think that’s what people like Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative provocateur, are all about. He comes to a campus, he insults people, he engages in the worst forms of racist and sexist speech. And the point is to provoke leftist reaction to him that can then be used to discredit the left. And my sense is that what the left needs to do is find strategies that will defuse the situation rather than play into their hands.

Moyers: After the outbursts that greeted Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, a city councilwoman there said, “I don’t appreciate that these are racists coming to UC Berkeley to spew hate.” Would you argue that racists should be silenced?

Scott: I don’t think we can argue that. I think what we need to do is expose them for what they are and fight back. I think we need to let them speak. They have free speech rights. At the same time we have to argue that other groups must not be shut down, either — say, students standing up for Palestinian rights. They have the right to speak just as often and just as much as racists like Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer. There has to be equal treatment of these groups even though the right wing groups are, because of their publicity stunts, gathering all of the attention while quietly left wing groups such as the Palestinian students are being shut down . . . .

Moyers: So sum up the state of academic freedom in late 2017 as we approach the end of Trump’s first full year in power.

Scott: It’s under grave threat. And it’s under grave threat from many different directions. And it’s up to those of us in the academy who care about the universities and who love the teaching that we do, to somehow keep open that space of critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth — to keep that space open and protected from the forces that would destroy it.

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And here are the opening paragraphs of Newfield’s essay, which address the recent suspension by Drexel University of Professor George Cicciarello-Maher:

Drexel University has followed Trinity College in Connecticut and others down the dead end of suspending a tenured faculty member — this time, George Ciccariello-Maher — for extramural speech. The term they used was “administrative leave” and the rationale was that his presence on the campus “poses a significant public safety risk to the Drexel University community.” The American Association of University Professors notified Drexel’s provost that it regards this as a suspension that did not comply with due process standards. Ciccariello-Maher remains in limbo, being paid but prevented from teaching his courses.

In addition to its negative impact on this professor and his students, the suspension makes things worse for campus debates and for campuses themselves. Here’s a quick scorecard, followed by an analysis of the larger context.

Academic freedom? Drexel managers didn’t defend it. They acted as though it is subject to unilateral administrative limits, which will further encourage internet trolls to call for its restriction.

Safety? Faculty suspension doesn’t increase anyone’s safety, including Ciccariello-Maher’s. Drexel has now made him look like a more legitimate target by putting him in the wrong.

Satisfying the volatile right? This will seem to them like a slap on the wrist, which will egg them on.

Getting closure on the controversy? The suspension of a tenured faculty member made Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets into national news.

Drexel’s leaders were most likely engaging in risk management and brand management. They failed on both counts. If there is an actual danger to some person or group’s physical safety, then officials should call in the police or other investigators. The blanket banning of a professor from the classroom doesn’t increase campus safety.

Similarly, Drexel officials didn’t protect but exposed their brand to Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets by suspending him. It would have been smarter to separate his tweets from their brand by identifying them as “extramural speech.” They could have invoked the AAUP’s guidelines covering such cases, in which a professor expresses an “opinion as a citizen.” The guideline states that such expression “cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve.” That in turn can only be found through a due-process inquiry by academe’s version of a jury of one’s peers, a faculty committee. Drexel would then have said, “Twitter is a medium of ‘extramural speech,’ in which everyone sounds off on all sorts of things. Faculty may use social media to make expert comments or to comment as nonexpert citizens. We ignore our personnel’s tweets even when we think they are wrong, offensive or stupid. The only exceptions are when an utterance violates a law or poses a clear threat. (And here is our list of clearly defined threats.)” . . .

The full text of the Moyers-Scott interview can be found at

The full text of Chris Newfield’s article can be found at

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