Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Challenging conventional wisdom is one thing; saying things that are historically inaccurate, inflammatory and racist is another. How much does academic freedom actually cover? If a history professor says something fundamentally wrong about a historical fact — such as misidentifying who staged the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — is that person’s views covered by academic freedom or is that a question of professional competence? What if a poetry professor says the same thing?
While the real protections offered under the principle vary from campus to campus, faculty work is at least founded on the idea that there’s room to express even unpopular ideas or beliefs. But are arguably unacademic opinions — inflammatory falsehoods that have no apparent basis in fact — also covered? A recent case at Oberlin College raises questions about whether all ideas are created equal when it comes to academic freedom.
For the American Association of University Professors, the distinction is one of disciplinary expertise and professional competence, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary in the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance. If, for example, a physics professor declared on Twitter that the Sept. 11 attacks were a hoax, AAUP would advocate for the professor’s right to free speech in extramural utterances (it doesn’t distinguish between free speech in person or online). But if the physics professor declared that the world is flat, denying all scientific evidence to the contrary, that could call into question his or her professional fitness.
“There’s a somewhat strange consequence that the less something relates to your discipline, the more protected you are on a general level,” Tiede said. “The closer something is to your area of expertise, you must in some sense be more careful that what you say doesn’t create concerns.”