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Speak up — On the importance of extramural academic freedom

Speak up — On the importance of extramural academic freedom

Photo: with AI

By David Robinson

In 1977, the Director of the School of Social Work at Memorial University notified Professor Marlene Webber that her probationary teaching contract would not be renewed. Her crime? It had come to the university’s attention that Professor Webber was active in the MarxistLeninist Party of Canada. In a brief letter confirming his decision not to renew the contract, the school’s director explained to Professor Webber that despite there being no concerns about her competency or conduct in the classroom, her political views and activities, which she pursued on her own time, were “inimical to and destructive of the system upon which our government is based.” The director scolded Professor Webber that she had “failed to grasp” that her political views “tended to reflect adversely upon the School and the University.”

The Webber case, though nearly fifty years past, is still relevant as it highlights an ongoing debate about what rights and protections should be afforded academics for their political speech. Should a university or college ever sanction an academic for exercising their expressive rights as a citizen, even if those beliefs are unpopular, controversial, offensive or damaging to the institution’s reputation? Are there any limits to what academic staff can say publicly and, if so, where should those lines be drawn? 

For the investigatory committee struck by CAUT into the Webber affair, led by renowned political scientist C.B. MacPherson, the answer to these questions was clear. “The only accepted grounds for non-renewal are inadequate scholarly or teaching competence or service to the University and the community,” the committee’s report stated. Consequently, it was determined that the decision not to renew Professor Webber’s contract because of her political beliefs was motivated by grounds that were “wholly unacceptable by any standard of academic freedom.”

In reaching this conclusion, the investigatory committee understood that academic freedom includes not just the right to freedom in teaching, research and service to the institution. It also extends to the freedom of “extramural expression” — comments by academics on matters of general concern, whether or not the subject is related to their area of disciplinary expertise. Extramural academic freedom permits an academic like MIT linguist Noam Chomsky to speak out on American foreign policy without retribution or censorship from his institution.

Some of the most important controversies over academic freedom in North America historically involved academics who were targeted and dismissed not because of what they taught in their classrooms or published in scholarly journals, but because of their political and social activism. Mathematician Lee Lorch, for example, was terminated by the City College of New York in 1948 because of his public advocacy for the civil rights of Black Americans. Two years later, he was fired by Pennsylvania State University because he had allowed the family of a Black war veteran to stay in his New York City apartment. Penn State publicly denounced Lorch’s behaviour as “extreme, illegal and immoral and damaging to the public relations of the college.” A few years later, Lorch was again terminated, this time by Fisk University in Tennessee, following his subpoenaed appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he had been called after his attempt to enrol his daughter in an all-Black school to protest segregation.

Lorch’s experience, unfortunately, wasn’t unique. The late 1940s saw the beginning of a wave of political repression in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada where professors, artists and writers were targeted for their political views. Many universities and colleges, formally and informally, required academics to sign loyalty oaths. The head of the law school at the University of Toronto, W.P.M. Kennedy, required future Supreme Court Chief Justice Bora Laskin to sign a loyalty oath before formalizing his appointment. Laskin had to pledge that he had “no connexion [sic] — public or private, expressly or implicitly — with organized Communism, Fascism or any subversive movement.” In a letter to the university president, Kennedy wrote reassuringly: “I have told him [Laskin] — as indeed I tell all those whom I recommend for appointment — that his duties are to teach law, not to make any public statements… on political or public questions.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, it was estimated that by 1958 more than 13 million teachers, scientists, civil servants, engineers and other professions were required to swear a political loyalty oath as a condition of their employment.

While the era of formal loyalty oaths is thankfully over, extramural academic freedom remains, as Matthew Finkin and Robert Post argue in For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, the “most theoretically problematic aspect of academic freedom.” That’s because it implicates expression that is not necessarily connected to academic expertise, nor to one’s position within the institution. It is linked to the general right of all citizens to express their views, and for that reason is often confused with the Charter right to freedom of expression. But extramural academic freedom isn’t just freedom of expression. It is a specific protection prohibiting universities and colleges from acting against academics for their political expression.

Extramural academic freedom should be seen as buttressing the right of academics to freedom in teaching, research and service to the institution. As Princeton professor Keith Whittington puts it, “if faculty members could be dismissed for what they say in public, then the core mission of the university to advance and disseminate knowledge would come under pressure and be subverted.” Academic freedom in all its aspects can only thrive in an environment where there is an overall respect for expressive freedom. Academic staff are unlikely to believe a university or college will defend their freedom in teaching and research if the administration curtails extramural expression.

This is not to suggest that extramural academic freedom should give academic staff the licence to spout forth whatever they want without consequences. Just as academic freedom in teaching and research is limited by disciplinary and ethical standards, extramural academic freedom too has its limits. It does not confer immunity from breaking libel or hate speech laws, nor does it permit harassment or discrimination. These limits, however, do not preclude academics from engaging in vigorous and sharp debate, or in expressing controversial and unpopular ideas.

It is precisely here that we find the main tension with extramural academic freedom playing out on campuses today, particularly with respect to public commentary around the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It has been suggested by some, including many university and college administrators, that when an academic’s extramural expression so deeply offends a group that members of that group might feel unwelcome or unsafe in a classroom, action must be taken. No matter how intense the outrage and pressure on the administration, extreme caution needs to be exercised. Unless and until it is shown that an academic’s public expression clearly violates the law or visibly demonstrates “unfitness” for the job, disciplinary action must not be countenanced. To permit such action would in effect be to extend to university and college administrations the power to police the tone and manner of the extramural speech of academic staff.

Academic staff need not be gentle, nice, “civil” or diplomatic in their public expression. On the contrary, academic freedom makes passionate, forceful and even angry expression possible. Admittedly, this can create discomfort and offence. But attempts to place limits on the tone of expression, even if well intentioned, will inevitably lead to discursive spaces emptied of conviction and emotion. As the American Association of University Professors’ On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes notes, “some may seek to defend a distinction between the regulation of the content of speech and the regulation of the manner (or style) of speech. The subcommittee finds this distinction untenable in practice because offensive style or opprobrious phrases may in fact have been chosen precisely for their expressive power.”

Arguably, the latest calls to regulate the tone or civility of public expression by academics are reflective of deeper and disturbing trends within universities and colleges. In an era of reduced public funding and creeping corporate managerialism, far too many administrations are quick to put reputational management and the appeasement of students, donors and politicians before their commitment to academic freedom. This timidity in leadership, as American historian Joan Wallach Scott contends, threatens to transform the university or college “from a place where ideas are contested, debated, and exchanged to one in which vigilant risk managers allow consumers to influence what can and cannot be said."

Academic freedom, like all expressive freedoms, is particularly vulnerable during times of conflict and social division. But history shows that it is precisely when political threats to academic freedom intensify that the need for academic staff to contribute to public discourse becomes even more important. Censorship invariably breeds conformity and docility. If universities and colleges are to fulfil their mission of preserving, sharing and advancing knowledge, then academic freedom, in all its aspects, needs to be robustly promoted and vigorously defended. That includes the recognition that academic staff must be encouraged and must be free to speak up.


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