Don’t confuse academic freedom and free speech

I believe an important distinction must be made between academic freedom and free speech, as the two are not synonymous.

November 30, 2017 23:38
3 minute read.
Don’t confuse academic freedom and free speech

Activist Linda Sarsour speaks at a June protest in New York City against US President Donald Trump’s limited travel ban. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOE PENNEY)

The appearance of Palestinian-American BDS activist Linda Sarsour on a panel addressing antisemitism at The New School is an opportunity to rethink the cherished American concepts of free speech and academic freedom.

Free speech is the right, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, to express beliefs and ideas without unwarranted government restriction.

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This includes the right of students to use offensive words to convey political messages and to engage in symbolic speech. It does not include the right to incite actions that would harm others.

Lately it seems that the concepts of free speech have been misunderstood in some quarters. It has even been suggested by some that academic freedom ought to be interchangeable with free speech. I disagree and believe an important distinction must be made between academic freedom and free speech, as the two are not synonymous.

Both lies and hate speech are protected under the constitution as free speech and yet, neither should be tolerated in an environment where academic freedom reigns. Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation. It does not mean that faculty members can threaten, intimidate, ridicule or impose their views on students.

In my view, academic freedom encompasses two fundamental concepts: the promotion of a constructive exchange of ideas regardless of one’s viewpoint and a baseline of truth and authenticity. While there can, and certainly will, be disagreement about what is constructive and what is true, there are clearly some things that go beyond the pale by all standards.

If, for example, one wanted to say that Jews are bad at chess, he would be protected under the right to free speech. However, such a statement would fail both the criteria for academic freedom, for demonizing a whole group of people cannot be seen as promoting constructive discussion and it simply is not true as the facts do not bear this statement out. Many of the world chess champions have been Jewish.

Some cases are more nuanced. When is activism constructive? What defines truth? There can be legitimate disagreements about how to answer these questions, because some subjectivity is involved. Each individual may view activism in certain cases as positive or negative and we each carry our own personal “truths” and our own perspective on what constitutes global truth.

And yet, certain events can and must be measured by whether they pass the test for academic freedom.

While they may be perfectly legal and reasonable if they occur on a street corner or at a news conference, they should not occur at a college or university.

Last night’s “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Justice” forum at The New School is a vivid example of an event that did not pass either academic freedom test.

Linda Sarsour has espoused extreme positions in her advocacy for Palestinian rights, but her appearance at a conference whose title suggests that it was designed to address the injustices perpetrated by antisemitism was clearly misleading and dishonest.

Sarsour admitted that she knew she was not there to speak about antisemitism, a topic about which she possesses little academic expertise. Thus the event did not pass the bar of truth and authenticity. Secondly, while advocating for Palestinian rights is a legitimate activity, supporting terrorism of any kind does not pass the test of promoting a constructive exchange of ideas. Sarsour is free to speak as she sees fit, but her participating as a panelist on antisemitism is disingenuous and tantamount to academic malpractice.

No one should be allowed to stand behind the cloak of academic freedom to espouse and promulgate destructive ideas. It is incumbent on educational institutions to promote understanding among diverse groups while creating a forum for mind-expanding discourse that is based on honesty and truth, above all.

The writer is president of the Touro College and University System.

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