Academic Freedom Essay

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Academic freedom refers primarily to the rights of faculty and students to provide instruction and inquiry in academic institutions without restrictions on their analysis or fear of negative consequences. Although the term is more frequently applied to higher education, it is used also in public schooling, though it is often controversial in this context.

Origins And Essence Of Academic Freedom

Academic freedom developed in the Middle Ages with the maturation of European universities, which during this time experienced exceptional freedom because the philosopher, scholar, and student aimed to be consecrated to the service of truth, and such freedom was regarded as divine sanction. By the 1800s, the principles of Lehrfreiheit (freedom of inquiry), Lernfreibeit (freedom to learn), and Freiheit der Wissenschaft (conduct research) had arisen in German universities, which eventually influenced what constitutes a genuine research university in the United States.

Experienced in varying degrees worldwide, academic freedom has been based throughout its history on the belief that it is beneficial to society for truth to be pursued. Academic freedom means typically that faculty members of an institution possess the prerogative of communication, expression, inquiry, and study. In American higher education, for instance, it has been primarily professors who have defended the right to pursue—without concern about being dismissed from their position—knowledge and truth through their publications, research, and teaching. Throughout the world, this concept also has been extended to students who require the right to question faculty propositions without concerns of negative repercussion.

Enshrining Freedom In Academic Institutions

Higher education institutions have defended their right to be the final arbitrators in making conclusive decisions concerning the content and method of both the research and teaching that engages students. Elementary and secondary teachers, too, have employed the term academic freedom for their particular rights, especially during the 1960s, to determine the content of courses taught and select departmental curricula. It is also common for educators and students to seek the freedom to engage in various political and social activities. Academic freedom for university professors necessitates the institutional component of tenure, the acknowledgement of the right of a teacher to an appointment based on demonstration of competence. The appointment is continuous unless incompetence, moral turpitude, or neglect is demonstrated, and is integral to the institution as a whole because it sustains the principles of “free search for truth and its free exposition” through professional experience (e.g., an educator may teach without fear of penalty for pursuing ideas that conflict with the institution or general society).

Although academic freedom is varied in practice and theory worldwide, it is the general expectation in Western society and is regarded positively in developing countries of Africa, the Far East, and the Middle East. For example, the German Constitution specifically grants academic freedom, as “art and science, research and teaching are free. Freedom of teaching does not absolve from loyalty to the constitution.” The institutional component to academic freedom in the United States was famously expressed in 1957 when Justice Felix Frankfurter established a foundation for academic freedom in the United States. Based on a statement of the Open Universities in South Africa, Justice Frankfurter opined,

It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment, and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail “the four essential freedoms” of a university—to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study”

As the “common good” of the institution of higher learning “depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” the individual component of academic freedom encompasses the entitlements of both teacher and student (although to a lesser extent for the latter).

Important Charters For Academic Freedom

“The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” (drafted and approved by the Association of American Colleges and Universities) established three aspects of academic freedom for an institution to ensure in “fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society”: (1) “the teacher is entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results,” (2) “the teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his/her subject,” and (3) when a professor “writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline” (American Association of University Professors, 3). Essentially the institutional and individual components should function harmoniously, as institutions should provide an atmosphere of complete freedom for educators to conduct research and publish the conclusions, as long as their performance is sufficient in other academic responsibilities. While without this academic freedom it can be argued that educators are unable to fulfill their service of pursuing and communicating truth, teachers should, however, be careful to avoid discussion of controversial matters unrelated to the subject at hand.

“The 1940 Statement of Principles” did not demand religious institutions to implement this form of academic freedom, as “limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.” The statement is perhaps intentionally ambiguous in assuming that certain limitations would exist, seeking to regulate these limitations through the obligation of honest and immediate disclosure. As granted by the limitations clause, religious institutions would have liberty to implement their own principles of academic freedom. Religious institutions that require their faculty to sign statements of faith merely formalize a mode of voluntary association that develops naturally at other institutions where such requirements do not exist. Consequently, statements of faith intrinsically considered do not limit genuine academic freedom.

Such declarations of academic freedom are prevalent worldwide. For example, “The Magna Charta Universitatum” of 1988, signed by Rectors of European Universities, states that,

[T]he university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organized because of geography and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teach must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power (1).

Originally signed by twenty-nine European countries, the 1999 Bologna Process reinforced the academic ideals laid out within the Magna Charta and has continued to gain popularity with forty-six participating countries.


  1. Aby, Stephen H., and James C. Kuhn IV, comps. Academic Freedom: A Guide to the Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000.
  2. Alstyne,William W.Van, ed. Freedom and Tenure in the Academy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
  3. American Association of University Professors. “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with 1970 Interpretative Comments,” n.d.,
  4. Baade, Hans W., and Robinson O. Everett, eds. Academic Freedom:The Scholar’s Place in Modern Society. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1964.
  5. Beale, Howard K. A History of Freedom of Teaching in American Schools. New York: Scribner’s, 1941.
  6. Byse, Clark, and Louis Joughin. Tenure in American Higher Education. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1959.
  7. De George, Richard T. Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.
  8. Hamilton, Neil W. Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.
  9. Hofstadter, Richard, and Walter P. Metzger. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.
  10. Kirk, Russell. Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1955.
  11. MacIver, Robert M. Academic Freedom in Our Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.
  12. Magna Charta Observatory. “The Magna Charta Universitatum,” 1988,
  13. Pincoffs, Edmund L., ed. The Concept of Academic Freedom. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972.
  14. “354 U.S. 234 (1957) Sweezy v. New Hampshire”Washington, D.C.:The Supreme Court Historical Society, n.d.,

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