Academic Freedom vs. Freedom of Speech

A major source of the rancor and hysteria over BDS and other political issues on campus is people’s confusion between freedom of speech and academic freedom.  Academic freedom exists as part of the protection for academia.  It doesn’t mean that the university can promote or permit any kind of speech it wants to.  Indeed, academic freedom requires the university to protect its students and faculty from the outside world, including from intimidation by freedom of speech.

Academicians — in a true academic setting — are not permitted to infringe on other academicians’ learning and pursuit of new knowledge.  Promoting one side of a fraught political issue does infringe.  It’s not educating, it is indoctrinating.  And it defeats the process of serious learning, which requires freedom from intimidation and from inhibition.  Even outside academia, in the “real world,” freedom of speech is limited — everyone knows not to yell “fire” during the normal emptying of a crowded theater or arena.  If a university were true to its ideals, it would not permit political propaganda anywhere on campus at all, because it infringes on the ability of students and faculty to pursue learning independent of coercion (and, of course, distraction).

Civilized life depends not only on freedoms, but on their limitations. This has been demonstrated by events and behavior, and explained by philosophers, time and again throughout history.

We live in a time when freedom of expression has the upper hand, is overvalued. This has a number of ramifications, like an implicit approval of “transgression” — the idea that insulting someone else’s values is good, it provokes them to change. Yet freedom of expression, historically, politically and legally, is primarily the freedom from the government telling you (and newspapers, and teachers) what to say and what not so say.  It doesn’t eliminate discretion or respect for others. Nor does it eliminate the government protecting its citizens from each other.

What about when I feel harassed by your expression?  Shouldn’t I be free from this? Maybe you should pipe down.  Leave me alone.  What right do you have to inflict your loud beliefs on me and my solitude — if I am on campus at college, I didn’t sign up to be harassed by you.  Or to have your politics insinuated into my learning.  Certainly the founders of the United States who wrote its constitution believed it protects the right to be left alone., i.e., in this case, for a student not to be brainwashed.

Students should be educated in these principles.  Administrators should know that protection of learning is their prime responsibility. And the faculty should learn these things in their preparation to teach. This is the basic stuff they are supposed to base their teaching on. Teaching is supposed to be as pure as possible.  Until the faculty return to understanding this distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech, academic freedom — and therefore the quality of education — at our universities will continue to diminish.

About the Author
Dana Gordon is based in New York. His writing has been published in The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary Magazine, The New York Sun, and The New York Times