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Debra Satz
Richard Morgenstein

Winter 2021 H&S E-Newsletter for Faculty and Staff

Academic Freedom and Free Speech

Dear Colleagues,

In what ways are freedom of speech and academic freedom important to our two central aims as a university: education and the production, dissemination, and conservation of knowledge (not mere opinion, dogma, or fad)? My aim in this message is not to take a stand on any particular actions discussed by the faculty Senate (e.g., the university’s relationship with Hoover), or to weigh in on recent controversies directly, but instead to reflect on general issues and principles.

I begin by making three—I hope uncontroversial assumptions—which I take from an excellent article by the philosopher Joshua Cohen[1]:

  1. We all have fundamental interests—in learning about the world and ourselves, in communicating our deepest commitments, in participating as citizens—that are best secured by very strong protections of expressive liberty;
  2. There are, as the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out, some uncomfortable facts about human psychology that render us vulnerable to silencing speech that we do not like or that others do not like. (It is easy to believe in “free speech” for those with whom we agree.) These facts often lead to conformity of opinion, groupthink, discounting the views of others, oppression, and tyranny of the majority. This is especially of concern when it comes to people in positions of power who can have strong interests in not being criticized and in getting to determine who, if anyone, gets to have their say.
  3. The social and psychological costs of free expression are real—but they can, in very many cases, be addressed through what Justice Louis Brandeis called “more speech.”

These three assumptions—fundamental interests, unhappy facts about our human psychology, and the powerful role of more speech in combatting both false and harmful speech—support something like First Amendment jurisprudence in the public square. Of course, even the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech is not absolute. It doesn’t protect libel, false advertising about commercial products, or incitement of violence. And there’s room for reasonable disagreement: some countries with otherwise strong protections for free speech legally restrict the category of hate speech, while the U.S. does not.

But let’s put the question of the exact limits of this public square free speech aside. Assuming the three assumptions are true, what might they entail regarding academic freedom?

Academic freedom is, in the first instance, the freedom of the scholarly community to pursue, disseminate, and openly discuss their work. It includes the right of faculty members to choose what ideas to investigate and what to publish, as well as to design the classes that they teach. It includes the right of faculty to decide what topics to lecture on in their subject area, what readings to include or to omit on their syllabus, and what arguments to advance.

Students, of course, are also members of the academic community. They have the right to give feedback to faculty about the elements of their teaching, to disagree with their professors, and to make choices as to what classes they will take, within some guidelines established by the university and the departments. Class discussion, which can include consideration of ideas that some students will find unsettling or offensive, is central to our ability to generate new ideas and to educate. While students themselves bring valuable new ideas and perspectives that can lead faculty to imagine new directions in their teaching or research, teaching and research are first and foremost the province of the faculty.

Academic freedom, so understood, differs from freedom of expression as defined by the First Amendment, even though it significantly overlaps with it. While the government is neutral on the truth or falsity of competing ideas, scholars cannot be, at least with respect to work in their own fields. There are specific conditions that pertain to scholarly research. As Yale law professor Robert Post notes: “Although the First Amendment would prohibit government from sanctioning an editorialist for the New York Times if he were inclined to write that the moon is made of green cheese, no astronomy department could survive if it were unable to deny tenure to a young scholar similarly convinced.”[2]

Academic freedom exists to ensure the independence of the profession from external interference; but it also depends critically on the academic profession taking responsibility for its work, guided by the standards for generating knowledge in specific fields—unconstrained by special interests and, indeed, any interests outside of those of the internal standards of the field.

Academic freedom, like freedom of speech, has limits. We expect academics to respect the ethics of scholarly discussion (refraining from ad hominem attacks on opponents for example) and not to plagiarize, produce shoddy work, or lie about their results. We expect them to advance their claims with reasoned arguments and evidence. We also expect faculty to create inclusive classrooms where all students are treated with respect, and where a student’s own ideas on the issues pursued in the class can be expressed. These constraints are enforced through the university’s practices of tenure and peer review, its disciplinary processes, and by its system of rewards. Academic freedom is not license to do anything and everything that is protected under the banner of free speech.

Are there dangers raised by this idea of academic freedom—which is somewhat distinct from freedom of expression—worries, for example, about non-conventional or controversial scholars being given short shrift by their disciplines? Undoubtedly. In making our judgments about the quality of research, we always want to remain aware of the uncomfortable facts of our psychology and the pressures to conformism. In addition, many matters are complex, and our judgments about them are fallible: we have so much more to understand about the natural and social world. Indeed, most of us, at one time or another, will likely have ideas that do not pan out, which turn out to be mistaken. Furthermore, public policy decisions supported by research will often involve trade-offs about which scholars (and citizens!) can reasonably disagree.

Still, the best way that we have of generating knowledge and truth is through the development of scholarly communities with robust, norm governed practices of criticism, including the use of peer review, the testing of ideas through reasoned argument, attempts at replication, consultation, deliberation, collaboration with a wide and diverse community of other scholars, and the rigorous use of well-honed methods of inquiry in our disciplines. We must not surrender these means for developing knowledge to any pressures—whether from governments, funding agencies, donors, political causes, or from our own students.

Naturally, there are some hard cases. In the United States, professors clearly have First Amendment rights as citizens—to hold and defend unpopular ideas—including the idea that the moon is made of green cheese. Students also possess First Amendment rights on campus, as a result of the Leonard Law. Are there any limits on this that attach to our professional roles and, if so, what are these? And is there a right for anyone to speak on a college campus?

In such cases, the answers may seem less clear. But the three assumptions supporting free speech that I began with—fundamental interests, the ability to meet the harms of some speech with more speech, and the worries about conformity and exclusion—should make us extremely wary of calls to sanction faculty for their social media posts, and loathe to launder our environment so that no one gets to hear arguments that disagree with their opinions on contested issues or to adopt expansive speech codes on campuses. Human motivation renders free expression and academic freedom alike vulnerable to under-protection. Failure to stringently defend these values and principles risks stifling debate and discussion and so reduces the productivity of research; it slows down the winnowing of bad ideas; and it can make early career scholars reluctant to challenge orthodoxy in their fields. Academic freedom is absolutely vital to our mission as a university.

In her Stanford Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts, Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania remarked: “It’s easy to forget that American colleges and universities derive their greatness not by echoing the conventional views of society, carrying the partisan banner of governments, or giving aid and comfort to purveyors of prejudices. Rather, they do so by protecting the freedom of professors and students to read widely and explore topics in all their complexity, to think critically and debate issues where there are grounds for reasonable disagreement, and to imagine and express new ideas and new worlds without fear of reprisal or retribution. …”[3]

Many of the biggest advances in our world, along with compelling solutions to seemingly intractable problems have come, and must continue to come, from universities like Stanford. As your dean, I am committed to doing everything I can to foster the best conditions for your research and teaching, including protecting and nurturing academic freedom.

Best wishes,

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

[1] Joshua Cohen, “Freedom of Expression,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 22, no. 3, 1993: 207-263.

[2] Robert Post, “Academic Freedom and Legal Scholarship,” Journal of Legal Education Vol 64, No 4, 2015: 530-541.

[3] Also quoted in Amy Gutmann, “Academic Freedom or Government Intrusion,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 9, 2005.