The complexity of academic freedom
As pretty much all the world knows, Ireland has recently experienced a major debate about the meaning of academic freedom. The particular context was the claim by University College Cork lecturer Dylan Evans that the university’s decision to discipline him for showing an academic paper on fellatio by fruit bats to a colleagues who had been made to feel uncomfortable by the encounter was an assault on his academic freedom. This is how Dr Evans set out the argument in writing to UCC’s management:
‘There are broader issues of academic freedom at stake here. If we cannot discuss scientific articles about topics directly related to our own research, published in leading peer-reviewed international journals, with colleagues in the same department, this bodes very ill for informed enquiry and debate.’
As it happens, Ireland is one of the few countries that actually has a statutory definition of academic freedom, in section 14 of the Universities Act 1997:
‘A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.’
Academic freedom so understood is there to ensure that academics can develop ideas or argue against the ideas of others without having to fear that they will be penalised for doing so. Academic freedom as defined in other jurisdictions (in particular Germany and the United States) has sometimes tended to focus more on the right of the institution to determine its own curriculum and to decide on the admission of students. But what all these have in common is that ideas should be protected, even if they are unwelcome.
But while it may seem easy to map out the terrain in which academic freedom operates, it can raise complex problems in practice. If we accept that an academic may hold, develop and disseminate unorthodox or controversial views, does this right refer only to views that we might regard as ‘expert’ views, i.e. related to his or her expertise or discipline, or does it have a broader remit? If my field is organic chemistry, are my views on corporate banking protected by academic freedom? If they are, why should my views on this be given greater standing than the views of non-academic members of the public? If they are not, how can it be right that my views receive no special protection, while the identical views of my colleague in the economics department do? And if my views are covered by academic freedom, does this mean (as Dr Evans contended) that he has a right to express these to someone who doesn’t want to hear them? Or put another way, does every person have a legal obligation to listen without protest to views delivered by an academic? To give an extreme example, does my academic freedom oblige all persons at a dinner party with me to be quiet as I expound my views? Are they behaving illegally if they object?
There is also another setting in which academic freedom is sometimes invoked. If an academic wishes to criticise his or her institution, or a policy or position adopted by it, is this part of academic freedom? Similarly, have I the right to publish my criticisms of my university to a wider audience under the general heading of academic freedom? If I have, does this apply if what I say is untrue? Or what would be the position if what I say is untrue and it inflicts damage on my institution? A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court, Garcetti v. Ceballos, though admittedly not dealing with a university issue, is thought by some to have placed restrictions on the legal protection that may be claimed by academics who want to criticise their institution. However, the right to be critical, particularly where the debate concerns the academic principles of the university, should not be dismissed too lightly.
However we may answer all or any of these questions, it is clear that academic freedom is at the heart of a university system for a democratic society. The free and unhindered flow of ideas is vital for any such society, and those who develop ideas, even where they are controversial or unwelcome (provided they are within the law), need to be protected. But we also need to avoid the suspicion that academic freedom is a claim by academics not to be accountable for what we say and do. A good start to getting this right and securing public confidence is not to apply the concept of academic freedom to situations where it does not belong, and Dr Evans’ fruit bat saga is one of these.