Varying degrees of academic freedom

Context and motive are key to concerns about limits on freedom within and without the academy

April 9, 2015

“Is it legitimate to compromise on academic freedom abroad?” asks Roderick Hills, William T. Comfort III professor of law at the New York University School of Law on the PrawfsBlawg blog.

His post discusses whether academic institutions or individuals should “compromise academic freedom to gain access to a population otherwise controlled by an authoritarian regime”, and references Andrew Ross, an NYU sociologist who was barred from entering the United Arab Emirates, reportedly because he had criticised its exploitation of migrant workers.

“In my own view,” Professor Hills writes, “the question of whether or not to compromise on academic freedom for the sake of a physical presence in authoritarian turf does not have any categorically correct answer.”

It depends, he contends, on “what one must give up and what one gains”, adding that he would be happy enough if his university was to accept what he calls an “inside-outside” deal from the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai to allow faculty and students to teach and learn whatever they pleased while inside the classroom, but not “lobby, kibitz, incite, persuade, organize, or otherwise participate in local politics outside on the street or in cyberspace”.

He makes it clear that he does not know whether NYU struck any such a deal in establishing its Shanghai base, but says that if it did, it could potentially “enlarge the total amount of freedom”.

If his university is able to offer Chinese nationals “a freer education” than they would have at a Chinese university, then any “rigid refusal” to compromise in order to establish a campus there would leave those students less free, he reasons.

Academic freedom is also discussed in a post on the “social politics and stuff” blog by Davina Cooper, professor of law and political theory at Kent Law School, part of the University of Kent. It was written after the institution held a symposium on academic freedom to mark the centenary of the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom last month.

She describes “a panoply of dramas for academic freedom advocates”, including “university staff dismissed or suspended for unacceptable speech” and “speakers who remain un-invited or find invitations withdrawn thanks to ‘no-platform’ university policies”.

“Much debate on academic freedom treats the classroom and academic world as a public domain, where reasons for supporting speech lie in advancing knowledge, civilisation and democracy,” she writes. “But should public speech be the premier site of freedom? Does it depend on why we want speech to be free?”

One reason the blog gives for public speech often being privileged is “an expressive one: regardless of what speech does, we should be entitled to say it”.

“So free speech…is at issue when it comes to the ‘right’ to mock disabled people,” she contends. “Far less frequently is it urged when it comes to companies using their proprietary rights to stop employees disclosing stuff about their workplace and what it is they do.

“We’ve got privacy here the wrong way around. Instead of challenging those speech acts that are propertied and so taken out of the public domain, free speech advocates focus on the public right to injurious speech towards already unjustly treated people.”

Chris Parr

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