Academic Freedom and Academic License

Why I am No Longer a Supporter of "Academics for Academic Freedom"

"None can love freedom heartily
but good men; the rest love
not freedom but license."

John Milton

There is an old distinction - important in Catholic philosophy - between “freedom” and “license”. Freedom is a responsible exercise of our own powers in pursuit of our own ends; license is the exercise of our will without restraint, irresponsible and wild. We can exercise freedom with due concern for the effects of our actions on others, but when we act with license we pursue solely our own desires.

This distinction has returned to me repeatedly in the contemporary discussion around academic freedom and so-called “cancel culture”. According to one increasingly influential viewpoint, academic freedom is under attack by super-woke scolds, be they students or lefty professor, who are creating a hostile environment for conservative scholars and students. Free speech and thought, the sacred value of the university, is under attack, as papers are retracted and teachers fired if they don’t espouse currently-acceptable social justice orthodoxy.

This is certainly the view of Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF), a UK nonprofit organization which promotes “academic freedom, no ifs, no buts”. I support academic freedom. I recognize that the university is a special place where ideas considered harmful or even abhorrent in wider society should be on the table of debate. I don’t think it is right to try to suppress genuine academic research, even if there is a seemingly-compelling social justice case in favor of its suppression. Countless ideas considered routine or even essential today were once considered heretical, and I worry that genuine advances in justice-thinking could be stifled were the sacred free speech havens of the university overtaken by a fixed political ideology. The equal dignity of queer people, for instance, was once an unspeakable idea, and could well have been suppressed on ideological grounds: yet universities did offer, on occasion and with lots of problems for sure, a space where queer theory might germinate and grow. We need to keep that space open for future advances in our understanding.

That’s why, when I was much younger, I signed AFAF’s statement on academic freedom. It reads:

‘We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom:

(1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and

(2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.’

I still agree with this statement, as far as it goes. I recognize now there is room for significant disagreement regarding how these ideas might be interpreted, and that on its own the statement does not articulate a full philosophy of academic freedom. But as a pithy statement of values I find myself assenting. Research should not be curbed just because it “tests received wisdom”, "or is “unpopular”, “controversial”, or “offensive”. My name was listed as a signatory of the statement for more than ten years.

Last week, however, I requested that my name be removed - not because of any major shift in my thinking regarding academic freedom, but because AFAF as an organization (and the network of organizations of which it is a part) have increasingly promoted what I think of as “academic license” rather than a responsible academic freedom. In this case AFAF, it’s you, not me.

What do I mean? I mean that in recent months and years AFAF has fallen in with the Intellectual Dark Web crowd and have assiduously encouraged the false narrative that there is a “crisis of free speech” on college campuses. They have, through their Facebook page, spread numerous fear-mongering articles about academics supposedly “silenced” by social justice advocates, without any apparent consideration for the accuracy of the stories they have shared. At best, they have piggy-backed on conservative boogeymen to bolster their own profile; at worst, they have actively misled their supporters with articles which so grossly distort the truth as to be dishonest.

The way this goes is always the same: some conservative outlet will write an article decrying the “cancellation” of a college professor; AFAF supporters will become enraged over the limitation of free speech it supposedly represents; I will actually read the article, and do some basic research into the case; I will discover that the professor in question was in fact terminated/sanctioned/criticized for wildly unprofessional conduct; I will present this contradictory information; and AFAF will completely fail to correct the record, hiding behind the idea that they are merely “sharing information”.

Despite AFAF’s continual attempt to show otherwise, it is essentially unheard of for a genuine academic to face professional consequences for their academic work. The examples they offer inevitably show academics being held to account for disgraceful behavior, such as failing in their duty of care toward students or explicitly racist teaching. All the while, attempts by US conservatives to literally prevent the teaching of certain ideas in schools go unremarked. This is intellectually dishonest, the substitution of propaganda for principled criticism, and I want no part of it.

The sad fact is that AFAF, in pursuit of a worthy ideal, has bought into a warped concept of “academic freedom”: one which would allow professors to act abominably, using “academic freedom” as an unlimited license to do what they want. This is not what the term means. The principle of academic freedom should protect academics in their academic work, enabling them to explore ideas without fear of professional sanction. It is not carte blanche to do what you like without fear of any consequences. That’s the other thing.