Academic Freedom Essay

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Academic freedom refers to teachers having freedom to teach and students having freedom to learn without interference from within or from ideological conflicts outside the institution. Understanding the rights and responsibilities of teachers is essential in public discourse on academic freedom. This entry provides the historical background of the concept, its interpretation in the law, and current challenges.

Foundations of Academic Freedom

In the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, university faculties were representatives of the church and state. Peripatetic educators taught within the parameters of church doctrine. However, Peter Abelard, author of Sic et Non, was condemned for failure to adhere to church doctrine. Medieval universities were corporations or guilds of scholars. In 1200, the University of Paris received royal recognition from King Philip Augustus, placing masters and scholars under clerical rule rather than under harsh secular courts. In 1231, the university received further recognition from the pope, allowing the university to establish control over lectures and disputations. The resulting university autonomy has been, with exceptions, the model for colleges and universities since medieval times.

The modern concept of academic freedom originated in Germany, in Prussia, and with the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810. Lehrfreiheit was the freedom to teach, engage in research, and distribute results without interference, and the freedom of students to learn without interference. The changes of the Enlightenment influenced the universities of Germany more than those of other countries, and canonical text became a scholarly, systematic lecture focus.

In the United States, John Hopkins, a research university, was the first to adopt the German concept of academic freedom. Throughout American history, faculty and administrators have been terminated or criticized for expressing views that have offended some individual, business, or legislative body. Educational reformer John Dewey received many complaints about university faculty members being dismissed for statements made in class that offended powerful interests or were taken out of context. Arbitrary and capricious administrative action was common.

When noted economist Edward Ross lost his job at Stanford University in 1909 because Mrs. Leland Stanford did not like his views on the gold standard, professors across the nation were alarmed. In 1915, Arthur C. Lovejoy of John Hopkins University, E. R. A. Seligman and John Dewey of Columbia University, and others wrote The General Report on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

American universities have changed, but there was a cultural lag in the implementation of necessary academic freedoms. Dissident professors were often the victims; trustees and administrators were the culprits, the power of dismissal was the weapon, and loss of employment the wound. The 1915 report laid the foundation for job security, academic tenure, and due process. The report did not prohibit faculty from speaking out on issues foreign to their specialties, but the university could disown everything its members said, then let them publish whatever they pleased.

The threat to academic freedom is constant in higher education. Subtle infringements on academic freedom tend to occur, especially when faculty members speak publicly on controversial issues. McCarthyism occurs when donors, politicians, business, and religious leaders call for university investigation and dismissal of faculty who have controversial views. Criticism of faculty is particularly intense during periods of internal stress, social fragmentation, and global conflicts. University administrators feel a dual pressure to respond to external forces as well as to protect the freedom to learn and to teach on their campuses.

The American Association of University Professors developed a Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1940. The purpose of the statement was to ensure that higher education institutions are conducted for the common good, not to further the interest of the individual teacher or a particular institution. Academic freedom in teaching and research is fundamental to the advancement of truth and to the protection of the teacher’s rights in teaching and the student’s freedom in learning.

The governing bodies of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges met in January 1990 to adopt several changes that removed gender-specific references from the original text. The AAUP statement on academic freedom includes the caution that teachers should be careful not to introduce controversial matters which have no relation to their subject. Limitations on academic freedom because of religious or other institutional aims should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the teacher’s appointment. College and university teachers are citizens, and when they speak or write as citizens, their unique position in the community imposes special obligations. Faculty should be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others, and indicate that they are not speaking for the institution. To meet emerging standards of academic protocol, the document continues to be updated. It provides a model and guide for universities as they strive to protect freedom of inquiry and teaching.

The Law And Academic Freedom

Federal court decisions indicate that academic freedom is used to denote both the freedom of the academy to pursue its ends without interference from the government and the freedom of individual teachers to pursue their ends without interference from the academy.

The Supreme Court underlined the importance of academic freedom in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957). The Court reversed a contempt judgment against a professor who in refusing to answer questions about a lecture he had given at a university, articulated the rationale for academic freedom.

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any straitjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study, and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die. (354 U.S. 250)

The Supreme Court has consistently reinforced the vital necessity for freedom of speech in a democracy. It has used Sweezy as well as Shelton v. Tucker (1960) and Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967) to reaffirm the special role of academic freedom in the academy. The Court notes that our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. The classroom is peculiarly the “market place of ideas.”

The Court found in United States v. Associated Press (1967) that the nation depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth from a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritarian selection.

Current Challenges

In the twenty-first century, there are a number of challenges to academic freedom. There is a growing trend of increased private financing and decreased public funding of higher education. The trend increases the risk of conflicts of interest with corporations and other sponsors of research. The new operating environment requires clear guidelines for transparency in such dealings and protections for the academic freedom of researchers to share their results within the scientific community. The market dictates that research results are to be treated as proprietary, to be sold not given away, for the public good.

The Internet

Thomas Jefferson’s academic village has been supplanted with wired campuses and cyberspace information systems. In an Internet age individuals may use hate language against faculty and administration under the cloak of anonymity. Disinformation, misinformation, and groundless dogmatic authoritarian assertions made using a faculty member’s identity can destroy careers. Identity theft in all its forms is part of our era. Explosive advances in technology are a challenge to providing standards for academic freedom.

The Internet culture is a moving target. In the cyberspace age, electronic and digital communications within our community of academic discourse have changed the way faculty, students, and administration engage in teaching and scholarship. The methods by which information is obtained and disseminated, the means of storing and retrieving such information, the speed at which wider audiences are reached, and the transition from familiar and tangible physical space to virtual space all make issues of academic freedom an open-ended challenge.

Curtailing offensive information might be detrimental to researchers. Protecting intellectual property rights becomes more difficult with the cyberspace age. The classroom is no longer limited to traditional classrooms, but is represented by Web sites, home pages, bulletin boards, and listservs. Requiring passwords and changing them periodically provides a safety network for computer networking. Controversial opining should include disclaimers that such views do not reflect those of the institution. Campus speech codes and verbal harassment rules can target digital or electronic hate messages as well as similarly spiteful print messages.

The AAUP revised text adapted by the association’s council in November 2004, “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications,” stresses the importance of developing safeguards that will be applied to all areas of electronic communications within the campus community. This includes sensitivity to privacy needs in many situations where unauthorized disclosure of electronic messages and materials could jeopardize personal reputations and other vital interests, and ultimately deter free and open communications within the campus community. All these factors will require careful and extensive study by each institution and the tailoring of specific responses consistent with institutional needs and values, as well as with state and local laws. Academic freedom in an era of litigation, cultural wars, and social fragmentation, today as in the past, faces multiple challenges.


Academic freedom requires protection from interference with the unfettered search for knowledge and truth in the academy. Tenure provides institutional commitment and support for teachers to be free to conduct their research, teaching, and service without fear of reprisal or dismissal for taking a controversial stand on issues and trends in their subject matter area. Tenure protection includes due process rights for tenure track probationary and tenured faculty.

Some new institutions do not have tenure. Also, there are a growing number of untenured adjunct and part-time faculty. Court decisions assure them First Amendment free speech protections. Academic freedom is essential in higher education and the strength of its protection depends on each college and university’s faculty contracts as well as institutional custom and usage. Faculty have a responsibility for professional ethics and conduct in their institutional teaching, research, and service. Tenure, with exceptions, assures continued lifetime employment contracts.


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  3. Cross, T. (2006). Academic freedom and the hacker ethic. Communications of the ACM, 49, 37–40.
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  5. Hook, S. (1970). Academic freedom and academic anarchy. New York: Cowles.
  6. Kaplan, W. A., & Lee, B. A. (1995). The law of higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  7. Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967).
  8. Lyall, K., & Sell, K. R. (2006). The de facto privatization of American public higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 38(1), 6–13.
  9. Metzner, W. P. (1981). Academic freedom in delocalized academic institutions. In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdahl, & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), Higher education in American society (pp. 37–54). New York: Prometheus Books.
  10. The 1940 statement of principles on academic freedom and tenure with interpretive comments. (2006, July 4). American Association of University Professors. Retrieved July 4, 2006, from redbook/1940stat.htm
  11. Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960).
  12. Standler, R. B. (2000). Academic freedom in the USA. Retrieved from
  13. Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957). United States v. Associated Press, 385 U.S. 589 (1967).

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