Academic freedom under threat

The student protests on college campuses against the horrors taking place in Gaza have been largely peaceful and taken the form of setting up encampments in college open spaces and holding demonstrations and making speeches. In response, some universities have responded with inexcusably harsh repressive measures, sending in armed riot police and even snipers to break up the protests and the encampments and arrest students and faculty. It is as if they have not learned the lessons of the anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid protests of past decades where this kind of authoritarian response resulted in strengthening student resolve with even more universities joining in solidarity.

Sarah D. Phillips, a professor at Indiana University, was shocked by the harshness of the police response to peaceful protests and she herself was arrested simply for being there. But she says that the faculty are outraged and calling for the resignation of the president and provost, and that the students are undeterred.

I am a professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, where I was arrested this past weekend. After receiving social-media messages reporting a heavy police presence at a student rally, I rushed to the public gathering space on campus known as Dunn Meadow. There I saw my students among unarmed peaceful protesters. I saw state police in riot gear approaching them with batons. I saw still more police toting assault rifles. I could not believe my eyes. A few moments later, I had a riot shield pressed against my face. I was forced to the ground and told to roll onto my stomach. My wrists were cuffed tightly behind my back. I looked to my left — there was my student, likewise prone, battered, and cuffed. I looked to my right — another student, prone, battered, and cuffed.

The students peacefully protesting at Dunn Meadow are still there, and they keep their encampment organized and orderly. They observe quiet hours to allow for rest, sleep, and prayer. Alcohol is strictly prohibited. Protesters are instructed not to engage with hecklers. They’ve organized a Popular University featuring open-mic lectures and a lending library. Students take care of one another’s needs through an ethos of mutual aid. Concerned faculty, staff, fellow students, and community members — who may or may not agree with all of the protesters’ stances and views — contribute a meal, bring sunscreen, report on police movements, give a lecture, write and sign petitions, organize legal aid, play board games, and teach the students age-old protest songs and learn new ones from them.

To quote an open letter signed by IU faculty, university administrators have no right “to authorize unprovoked, violent, armed attacks on the very students and faculty they are supposed to protect.” This madness must end.

These recent upheavals have revealed the delicate relationship between the First Amendment right of free speech and what we have come to think of as academic freedom. These two are not the same and Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard University, writes that the way that some university administrations have been cracking down on the student protests reveals that academic freedom is under threat, and that while many faculty have themselves joined the protestors and succumbed to arrests to defend it. some university presidents, especially Columbia’s Nemat Shafik, are acquiescing to congressional pressure to curtail it.

The congressional appearance last month by Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University, was a breathtaking “What was she thinking?” episode in the history of academic freedom. It was shocking to hear her negotiating with a member of Congress over disciplining two members of her own faculty, by name, for things they had written or said. The next day, in what appeared to be a signal to Congress, Shafik had more than a hundred students, many from Barnard, arrested by New York City police and booked for trespassing—on their own campus. But Columbia made their presence illegal by summarily suspending the protesters first. If you are a university official, you never want law-enforcement officers on your campus. Faculty particularly don’t like it. They regard the campus as their jurisdiction, and they have complained that the Columbia administration did not consult with them before ordering the arrests. Calling in law enforcement did not work at Berkeley in 1964, at Columbia in 1968, at Harvard in 1969, or at Kent State in 1970.

What’s more alarming than the arrests—after all, the students wanted to be arrested—is the matter of their suspensions. They had their I.D.s invalidated, and they have not been permitted to attend class, an astonishing disregard of the fact that although the students may have violated university policy, they are still students, whom Columbia and Barnard are committed to educating. You can’t educate people who cannot attend classes.

The right at stake in these events is that of academic freedom, a right that derives from the role the university plays in American life. Professors don’t work for politicians, they don’t work for trustees, and they don’t work for themselves. They work for the public. Their job is to produce scholarship and instruction that add to society’s store of knowledge. They commit themselves to doing this disinterestedly: that is, without regard to financial, partisan, or personal advantage. In exchange, society allows them to insulate themselves—and to some extent their students—against external interference in their affairs. It builds them a tower.

Menand distinguishes between academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Academic freedom is related to, but not the same as, freedom of speech in the First Amendment sense. In the public square, you can say or publish ignorant things, hateful things, in many cases false things, and the state cannot touch you. Academic freedom doesn’t work that way. Academic discourse is rigorously policed. It’s just that the police are professors.

Faculty members pass judgment on the work that their colleagues produce, and they decide whom to hire, whom to fire, and what to teach. They see that the norms of academic inquiry are observed. Those norms derive from the first great battle over academic freedom in the nineteenth century—science versus religion. The model of inquiry in the modern research university is secular and scientific. All views and all hypotheses must be fairly tested, and their success depends entirely on their ability to persuade by evidence and by rational argument. No a-priori judgments are permitted, and there is no appeal to a higher authority.

All professions aspire to be self-governing, because their members believe that only fellow-professionals have the expertise needed to make judgments in their fields. But professionals also know that failures of self-regulation invite outside meddling. In the case of the university, it is in the faculty’s interest to run their institution equitably and competently. They need to be trusted to operate independently of public opinion. They need to keep the tower standing.

He says that some people are using the events of the recent past to curtail academic freedom.

The impression that some universities were not policing themselves competently, that their campuses were out of control, provided an opening to parties looking to affect the kind of knowledge that universities produce, who is allowed to produce it, and how it is taught—decisions that are traditionally the prerogative of the faculty. Politicians who want to chill certain kinds of academic expression think that they can do this by threatening to revoke a university’s tax-exempt status or tax its endowment. In the current political climate, it is not hard to imagine such things happening. If they did, it would be a straight-up abrogation of the social pact.

He looks at recent books that have been published that argue that “academic freedom is in peril and that it would not take much for universities to lose it.” This is because legislators are increasingly demanding a say in what colleges can teach, what books they can use, and what services they can provide to both faculty and students. He says that public colleges and universities have First Amendment rights that they can use in fight these measures.

Florida’s 2022 Individual Freedom Act, popularly known as the Stop woke Act, which prohibits the teaching in public educational institutions of ideas that some legislators define as “divisive,” was struck down, in part, by the Eleventh Circuit for being what it plainly is: viewpoint discrimination, which is barred by the First Amendment. (The power of states to dictate content in K-12 classrooms, on the other hand, is fairly well established.)

The Florida act was one of a hundred and forty educational gag orders passed by state legislatures in 2022; almost forty per cent of these targeted colleges and universities. The gag-order phenomenon is one of the topics covered in “The Right to Learn.” The volume’s editors argue that efforts such as these are worse than McCarthyism. McCarthyism went after individuals for their political beliefs; today, the targets are the curriculum and the classroom, the very bones of the educational system.

What about the rights of students?

The student version of academic freedom is Lernfreiheit, the freedom to learn. This rule is a little harder to apply. Students don’t typically determine the curriculum, and they are usually passive subjects of a disciplinary regime called grading. Originally, “freedom to learn” referred simply to the freedom to choose one’s course of study. Now it gets invoked in the contexts of classroom speech, where instructors are witnessing a lot of self-censorship, and campus speech, where students chant, carry banners, and exercise civil disobedience.

The pro-Palestinian demonstrators who created the conditions that the Jewish students allege are antisemitic are immunized by the First Amendment. “From the river to the sea” is a political slogan, classic protected speech. That is why Congress does not subpoena the demonstrators but goes after university presidents instead. The members of Congress who grilled Shafik want universities to punish demonstrators precisely because the government cannot.

A university is a community, and everyone is there for the same reason—to learn. The community has every right to bar outside parties and to insist on norms of civility and respect, understanding that those ideals are not always immediately attainable. In most universities, physical confrontations, the targeting of individuals with threats or harassment, and the disruption of campus activities are explicitly proscribed. When the rules are violated, the best approach is for the community to find ways to police itself. But most forms of expression have to be tolerated. Tolerance is the price academics and students pay for the freedoms society has carved out for them.

Academic freedom is an understanding, not a law. It can’t just be invoked. It has to be asserted and defended. That’s why it’s so disheartening that leaders of great universities appear reluctant to speak up for the rights of independent inquiry and free expression for which Americans have fought. Even after Shafik offered up faculty sacrifices on the congressional altar and called in the N.Y.P.D., Republicans responded by demanding her resignation. If capitulation isn’t working, not much is lost by trying some defiance.

I have spent nearly all my life studying and teaching at universities. I have found students to be generally on the right side of history when it comes to almost all the major social issues. Where they have failings is in sometimes not having the ability to craft and enforce a cohesive message that avoids divisive and discriminatory rhetoric. This leaves them vulnerable to those who seek to discredit the usually worthy goals by uttering statements and making demands that are outside the range of academic freedom. This enables outsiders with other agendas to find things to use to attack them. It is the role of faculty and university administrators to defend the views that fall under the rubric of academic freedom even if those views challenge the policies of the universities. Those policies are often driven by the Boards of Trustees who are usually members of the business and political elites, who are usually defenders of the status quo, not sympathetic to calls for social change

But while faculty have largely risen to defend the rights of students and faculty to express their views, university administrators nowadays tended to be bureaucratic careerists, only too eager to please the elites so that they can continue to occupy the lucrative seats of academic power.


  1. Robbo says

    “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
    We’re finally on our own
    This summer I hear the drumming
    Four dead in Ohio”

    the times, they aren’t a changin’

  2. Dennis K says

    A note about the police snipers: My wife has a nephew who’s one (I know it goes against the ACAB narrative to admit this but he’s a kind and responsible young family man). He says the snipers are there to discourage (and protect, if it becomes necessary) people on the ground, protestors included, from the Kyle Rittenhouse and the James Alex Fields types who would show up to do real harm — not to pick off protesting students.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Another note about police “snipers” -- they’re not snipers.

    A sniper is an extraordinarily skilled marksman who typically operates alone or with a single spotter from a position of concealment to engage an enemy who likely outnumbers and outguns them, but who is not expecting them, typically from ranges upwards of 600m -- sometime much, much further (there are eleven known instances of snipers successfully engaging at over two THOUSAND metres).

    A police marksman operates out in the open as part of a large deployment with the express intention to intimidate a person or group of people who are not equipped to fight back effectively, and it would be rare for them to engage (or to be able to engage) a target even 300m away. Calling them “snipers” is an insult to snipers. It’s symptomatic of the US police’s massive hard-on for playing at being soldiers.

  4. Dennis K says

    @3 — I’ll be sure to pass along what you say qualifies as a “real sniper” to my wife’s nephew. No doubt he’ll appreciate he’s gotten it wrong all this time. Thanks for the update!

  5. sonofrojblake says

    (Police “snipers” are snipers to the same extent that Gillian McKeith is a doctor and the guy they send out to repair my washing machine is an engineer -- there’s a common practice of taking what probably ought to be a protected term and misusing it to dupe an ignorant/uncaring public and make the user look better than they are. Some terms are protected -- try setting up in business as a dietician, say, without the proper qualifications in the UK, and you’ll be talking to law enforcement sooner or later. But call yourself a “nutritionist” and you’re safe. Call yourself “doctor” too, if you can be bothered to send off for a PhD in the post like McKeith did…)

  6. John Morales says


    A sniper is an extraordinarily skilled marksman who typically operates alone or with a single spotter from a position of concealment to engage an enemy who likely outnumbers and outguns them, but who is not expecting them, typically from ranges upwards of 600m

    So, sonofrojblake’s criteria explicitly consist of:
    ∗ an extraordinarily skilled marksman; and
    ∗ who typically operates alone; or
        ∗∗ with a single spotter; and
    ∗ from a position of concealment; and
    ∗ to engage an enemy; and
    ∗ who likely outnumbers and outguns them (i.e. more than one); and
    ∗ but who is not expecting them; and
    ∗ typically from ranges upwards of 600m.

    So, obs, a mere extraordinarily skilled marksman cannot possibly be a sniper.

    And, since police don’t typically operate alone etc, they can’t possibly be snipers.

    Case made. 😉

    (Sharpshooter, marksman… so subtle the differences!)

  7. Silentbob says

    @ sonofroj

    Dude you’re living in a movie reality.

    As far back as WW II a sniper was anyone firing from an unknown position.

    Real life isn’t Mission Impossible movies.

  8. Jazzlet says

    Silentbob @#8
    sonofrojblake is living in a time when snipers are on active duty in Ukraine, one of the over 2000 metres shots happened there. They also require specialist rifles, after the 2022 invasion there were appeals to fund new rifles for Ukrainian snipers, to increase the distance they could shoot accurately over.

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