THE BLOG
06/26/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2016

Sign Up to Stand Up for Global Academic Freedom

Next week I head off to the land of my mum -- the United Kingdom -- to talk about global threats to free speech and academic freedom. As several recent high profile examples here in the United States demonstrate, the topic couldn't be timelier.

Northwestern University is the unfortunate leader of the pack, being the site of two troubling academic freedom cases. The first involved a prolonged Title IX investigation of professor Laura Kipnis for writing an article that, ironically, was critical of Title IX. At virtually the same time, Northwestern professor, academic freedom champion, and author Alice Dreger was fighting to keep a faculty-produced bioethics journal, Atrium, from being censored by her administration for publishing an article that might just be interesting enough to read.

Meanwhile, a professor at Oakton Community College was threatened with legal action for making a reference to the Haymarket Riot in an email to colleagues. And in another major ongoing case, a professor at Marquette University is facing termination for publicly criticizing a graduate student instructor who told a student not to oppose same-sex marriage in a philosophy class discussion.

Let's also not forget about the cases my organization, FIRE, highlighted in our 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech list earlier this year. Schools are now going so far as to punish faculty for off-campus speech on their personal social media accounts.

The University of Illinois rescinded its job offer to Steven Salaita (who had left a tenured position at Virginia Tech) over controversial anti-Israel statements made from his personal Twitter account. And the Kansas Board of Regents implemented a policy on the "improper use of social media" by faculty and staff at the state's public colleges and universities that is both incredibly vague and authorizes punishment for constitutionally protected speech.

But perhaps the greatest threat to academic freedom may be the Department of Education, which has promoted a definition of harassment so broad that cases like Laura Kipnis's are all but inevitable.

Threats to academic freedom, of course, aren't just limited to the United States. Index on Censorship, a global free speech organization, is devoting the summer issue of its magazine to international threats to academic freedom. The edition features a series of case studies and research from countries across the globe. Some of the harrowing stories include accounts of government forces storming Mexican universities, Ukrainian lecturers being forced to "prove" their patriotism, and a Turkish professor's exam question leading to death threats.

Index's summer issue includes an open letter on why academic freedom needs urgent protection worldwide, which I proudly signed on to. The letter states:

We the undersigned believe that academic freedom is under threat across the world from Turkey to China to the USA. In Mexico academics face death threats, in Turkey they are being threatened for teaching areas of research that the government doesn't agree with. We feel strongly that the freedom to study, research and debate issues from different perspectives is vital to growing the world's knowledge and to our better understanding. Throughout history, the world's universities have been places where people push the boundaries of knowledge, find out more, and make new discoveries. Without the freedom to study, research and teach, the world would be a poorer place. Not only would fewer discoveries be made, but we will lose understanding of our history, and our modern world. Academic freedom needs to be defended from government, commercial and religious pressure.


If you agree with the sentiment--and I hope you do--please contact max@indexoncensorship.org to sign on to the statement.

Also, if you happen to be in London on July 1, please come to an Index-sponsored debate about academic freedom. And be on the lookout for a forthcoming book on threats to academic freedom from the invaluable Joanna Williams of Spiked.com.

For those of you in the United States, be sure to check out the University of Chicago and Geoffrey Stone's fabulous statement on the importance of academic freedom for the modern university. Getting your college or alma mater to adopt it would be a fitting way to honor the 100th anniversary of the American Association of University Professors' groundbreaking 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

Academic freedom, like freedom of speech, is neither a conservative nor liberal idea: It's an eternally radical idea. It needs advocates in every generation to boldly defend it in the face of the forces of repression, self-certainty, and conformity. I hope you'll consider becoming one of those advocates.