Academic freedom

Academic freedom is a widely used and championed phrase, but an often poorly defined concept with different meanings in different cultures and different contexts. It can refer to the alleged right of students, teachers or academic institutions to do or be protected from a number of different things.

The idea of academic freedom as stemming from, but different from freedom of speech (as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution) has been described in many court cases, but is considered by some to be ungrounded.

Many cases that have been judged to involve academic freedom are examples of:

  1. government suppression of political speech
  2. government interference with freedom of association, or
  3. government endorsement of religion.

According to some, these types of cases deal with rights that belong to everyone, not just students or professors, and that the legal concept of academic freedom is ill defined and inconsistent.


Who Possesses It?

The Student

The idea of academic freedom as a right of the student is German in origin. In this model (known in German as Lernfreiheit), the student is free to pursue their own course of study, taking whatever courses they like at whatever university they choose. This ideal was carried to the United States in the 19th century by some scholars who had studied at German universities. It was most prominently employed in the United States by Charles Eliot at Harvard University between 1872 and 1897, when the only required course was freshman rhetoric.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) acknowledged this application of the term "academic freedom" in its "General Declaration of Principles" in 1915, but when it issued a "Statement on the Academic Freedom of Students" in 1964, the concept described was far different from the traditional German model. (Kemp, p. 6)

The Professor

The concept of academic freedom as a right of faculty members (Lehrfreiheit in German) is an established part of German, English, French and American cultures. All three acknowledge the right of a faculty member to pursue research and publish their findings without restraint, but they differ in regard to the professor's freedom in a classroom situation.

In the German tradition, a professor is permitted to attempt to persuade his students to adopt his point of view on a matter, but he is discouraged or prohibited from stating his views, particularly political views, outside the class; in regard to his teaching, there should be no duties required of the professor, no prescribed syllabus, and no restriction to a particular subject.

An American professor, on the other hand, is expected to present opposing viewpoints about his subject in a fair and objective manner in class, but he is free to have and express his own opinions outside the university setting without fear of recrimination, though it is understood that this freedom is limited by the requirement to perform "other academic duties." (Kemp, p. 7) (Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (, American Association of University Professors)

A professor at a public French university, or a researcher in a public research laboratory, is expected, as all civil servants, to behave in a neutral manner and not favor any particular political or religious point of view during the course of his duties. However, the academic freedom of university professors is a fundamental principle recognized by the laws of the Republic, as defined by the Constitutional Council; furthermore, statute law declares about higher education that teachers-researchers [university professors and assistant professors], researchers and teachers are fully independent and enjoy full freedom of speech in the course of their research and teaching activities, provided they respect, following university traditions and the dispositions of this code, principles of tolerance and objectivity (Education Code, L952-2 ( The nomination and promotion of professors is largely done through a process of peer review rather than through normal administrative procedures.

The Institution

A prominent feature of the English university concept is the freedom to appoint faculty, set standards and admit students. This ideal may be better described as institutional autonomy and is distinct from whatever freedom is granted to students and faculty by the institution. (Kemp, p. 7)

The Supreme Court of the United States said that academic freedom means a university can "determine for itself on academic grounds:

  1. who may teach
  2. what may be taught
  3. how it should be taught, and
  4. who may be admitted to study." (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 312. 1978.) (Standler)

Freedom From What or To Do What?

Apart from the traditional German concept, which has few advocates today, it is generally believed that inquiry by students and faculty members is legitimately limited by academic requirements, but should be free from external restraints, as this is the best climate for the pursuit of truth.

A group called "Students for Academic Freedom" defines it simply as, "The freedom to teach and to learn." They contend in "The Academic Bill of Rights (" that academic freedom promotes "intellectual diversity" and helps achieve a university's primary goals, i.e., "the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large."


The limits of academic freedom are often controversial. For example, in January 2005, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill became the subject of intense media scrutiny in the United States because of an essay he wrote in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. In the essay, Churchill asserted that the foreign policy of the United States was partly to blame for the attacks. He was particularly vilified for describing the World Trade Center victims as "little Eichmanns," a reference to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. Many called for Churchill to be fired for overstepping the bounds of acceptable discourse. Others defended him on the principle of academic freedom, even if they disagreed with his message.


Michiel Horn

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