Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Academic Freedom as an Empty Promise...

PowerPundit raises some interesting issues about the scope and breadth of academic freedom. PowerPundit's topic is Ward Churchill, an associate professor at the University of Colorado who has made some very controversial (to say the least) comments about America's culpability for 9/11. I'm not even going to touch that one; he has been rightly and roundly excoriated for his despicable views on that subject. I am more interested in the topic of academic freedom, generally.

Most extreme proponents would have us believe that academic freedom is one of the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights - which it most assuredly is not (I am not about to get into a lengthy discussion about what academic freedom is, save that it is fundamentally a contractual right afforded academics that they will not be disciplined for their writings and teachings, to the point that, once they have achieved tenure, the academic may only be dismissed for good cause). My point here is that however noble may have been the origins of the concept, academic freedom has now, like so many other "rights", been twisted from its origins by the Left and usedas a sword to attack the established order and to shield it from criticism of any sort.

Academics today claim the right not only to make outrageous statements, like Ward Churchill's, but also not to suffer any consequences for having made them. Like all rights, however, academic freedom has both a limit and a conjunctive obligation attached to it. The most analogous right, of course, is the right to free speech embodied in the First Amendment. As we all know, that right is not limitless -- we've all heard Oliver Wendell Holmes dictum against shouting fire in a crowded theater. It is within the state's power to punish someone who does so shout, notwithstanding the First Amendment. It is just common sense.

Nor is academic freedom boundless. For instance, Ward Churchill's statements regarding American culpability for 9/11 probably reach what has. traditionally, been held to be treasonous -- a form of speech that is per se not protected by the First Amendment. This is where the obligation part comes in. My Property Law prof always emphasized the axiom that every right carries with it a corresponding obligation. The right that is "academic freedom" carries with it the obligation to exercise that freedom judiciously. Using academic freedom to promote political, rather than truly academic ends, distorts the original intention in affording academic freedom in the first place.

I think we need to have a thorough re-examination of the concept of academic freedom. We need to be able to put reasonable bounds on what it means and what the penalties are for flouting it. This type of topic has been off-limits for far too long as we have labored under the notion that we should accept the "marketplace of ideas" as a didactic means of reaching "truth". That concept has led to the ruin of First Amendment jurisprudence as well as concept of academic freedom. We are always free to learn from our mistakes...

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