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Renowned panel to discuss unorthodox views in academia

March 10, 2009

For nearly 85 years, academic freedom has been an essential part of higher education, a principle that entitles a professor to credibly and freely teach, research and publish without fear of institutional censorship or discipline. These protections were first developed in the United States in 1925, then updated in 1940 and 1970 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

But is the treatment of academics who hold controversial viewpoints on various topics - from race to global warming and from sex differences to intelligent design - consistent with this commitment to academic freedom? Are there perhaps more subtle, but also more pernicious threats to academic freedom in the modern American and British university?

These are questions that will be explored during "Academic Freedom and the Treatment of Dissenting Ideas in the Modern University," a roundtable discussion hosted by the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University on March 19. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the College's Great Hall in Armstrong Hall.

The free event is co-sponsored by the College's Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology, the Centre for Public Law at the University of Cambridge, the Biodesign Institute at ASU and the Phoenix law firm of Steptoe & Johnson LLP. It is being held in conjunction with an invitation-only workshop, "Unchallengeable Orthodoxy in Academia and Science," in Tempe on March 19-20.

James Weinstein, the Amelia Lewis Professor of Constitutional Law at the College of Law and a Center Faculty Fellow, will moderate a panel of seven national and international experts on academic freedom. Weinstein, a leading national scholar on free speech and the First Amendment, said that the program should be of interest to those both within and outside the academy.

"Academic freedom is a concept that is both contentious and often misunderstood, and its connection to freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment remains uncertain," Weinstein said.

Robert Post, the David Boies Professor of Law at Yale Law School and co-author of the new book, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, will deliver introductory remarks about the meaning of academic freedom and will participate in the panel discussion.

According to Post, part of the purpose of academic freedom is to maximize the ability of scholars to create and advance new knowledge through universities for the common good. Among the concepts of academic freedom, as written by the AAUP, is that teachers are entitled to full freedom in researching and publishing results of research, subject to the adequate performance of their other duties; and that they are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but should be careful not to persistently introduce material that has no relation to that subject.

"College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution," the AAUP's principles state. "When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations ... they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.

"They should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution," according to the AAUP.

Over the years, academic freedom has remained "remarkably durable on the whole," partly because it is self-regulated, and not policed by the government, Post said.

"The general public understands that, unless you allow people to think critically and independently, they can't find ways to cure cancer," he said.

One of the most significant threats to academic freedom has resulted from the current economic crisis, which has prompted states to slash public funding of universities, and has forced universities to rely more on private or corporate donations, Post said.

"When donors give, they generally exact a price, and corporations shape the nature of research," he said. "The more dependent universities become on private donations to meet their budgets, the more fragile academic freedom becomes."

One of the panelists, Frederick Schauer, the David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law and a scholar of freedom of speech and the press for more than 30 years, said there is plenty of debate about academic freedom.

"One question is, `Should academic institutions have more freedom from interference than the rest of society does?' " said Schauer, a former Academic Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "And although the pursuit of truth is important in academic inquiry, perhaps some things ought to be ruled out of bounds."

However, society may need academicians to separate science from fantasy. "It might be the population at large is less good at separating truth from falsity, and academic inquiry might be particularly good at it, and maybe there's less danger it will accept false ideas," he added.

Schauer, whose most recent articles include "Towards an Institutional First Amendment," exploring the possibility that the First Amendment may have special relevance in academic settings, and "Abandoning the Guidance Function: Morse v. Frederick," analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent case involving student expression, said the public has a stake in understanding issues of academic inquiry.

"At virtually all universities, and especially at state universities, the public is paying for people to have special privileges or immunities from control or regulation," he said, "and we have an obligation to explain it in a public debate such as this."

The other panelists are:

Larry Alexander, the Warren Distinguished Professor at the University of San Diego School of Law. Alexander teaches and writes in the areas of constitutional law, criminal law and jurisprudence. He is the author of 170 journal articles, essays, and book chapters, six anthologies, and five monographs, including Is There a Right of Freedom of Expression? (Cambridge University Press, 2005). In addition to that book, some of his journal articles deal with academic freedom issues, including "Academic Freedom" in the Colorado Law Review and "What We Do, and Why We Do It" in the Stanford Law Review.

Eric Barendt, the Goodman Professor of Media Law at University College London, who currently holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to research and write about academic freedom and the law, comparing the protection of the freedom in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany. Barendt has written extensively about freedom of speech, libel law and broadcasting regulation, including the following books: Freedom of Speech (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2007), Broadcasting Law (Oxford University Press, 1995), and Libel and the Media (Oxford University Press, 1997). He has been an adviser, and given evidence, to parliamentary committees inquiring into the future of the BBC, the regulation of broadcasting, and privacy laws.

James Moeser, Chancellor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who shepherded tremendous growth in faculty research, the development of an academic plan and significant enhancements to undergraduate education at the university. Moeser launched Carolina Covenant, a groundbreaking initiative to making UNC's education possible debt-free for low-income students, and oversaw a $2.1 billion capital construction program at the university.

Pauline Perry, a member of the House of Lords, United Kingdom who, in addition to holding other high ranking academic posts, served as president of Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge. Perry was a defender of academic freedom in her university leadership roles and as chair of its Clinical Research Governance Committee. She has published articles on the subject of academic freedom in journals and in the national press. Perry chairs the All-Party Universities Group in Parliament, to which the vice chancellors of almost all British universities belong.

George Poste, chief scientist at ASU's Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative and former director of ASU'S Biodesign Institute, who has had extensive involvement with analysis of the national security challenges posed by 'dual-use' technologies and their implications for unfettered research scholarship versus imposed constraint on areas of inquiry or imposition of classified status. In this capacity, Poste has worked closely with the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Defense and various groups in the U.S. intelligence community.

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law