Infographic with four circles, each with icons inside, representing different types of conduct protected by academic freedom, free expression, or both
Categories of conduct or expression protected by academic freedom versus free expression

Line drawing: Other questions for discussion

In the last few steps we discussed the challenges in precisely defining whether particular opinion, expression or conduct of an academic is, or is not, protected by academic freedom.

And you have seen from the exercises how difficult it can be to draw lines between different kinds of expression and conduct. If you find this confusing, that’s OK. It is confusing. There are a lot of questions to consider. Here are a few more. Share your thoughts in the comments, or add questions of your own.

Question: “Socially-engaged” academic freedom versus “other open expression”?

It is sometimes difficult to decide the difference between opinion, expression or conduct that falls within the “socially engaged” view of academic freedom (column B in the summary chart provided in the downloads section below) or “creative, artistic, personal, or other ‘open’ expression” (column C in the chart). The chart uses identical icons for these two categories to indicate that the same opinion, expression or conduct may be located in either column. This course suggests that it depends on how the action is taken. That is, whether it was done in a professional capacity and according to the standards and practices of an academic discipline, as determined by experts in that field. Is that a good standard? If not, what other test would you use to decide?

Question: Does location matter? On-campus vs. off-campus expression or conduct

Does the location of expression or conduct matter for purposes of protection of academic freedom or freedom of expression protection? We have discussed how all persons are protected under general human rights principles, everywhere, regardless of their location. This includes all members of higher education communities. Whether expression or conduct is also protected by academic freedom might depend on your view on academic freedom. The traditional view of academic freedom might consider the location very important. The contemporary or “socially-engaged” view of academic freedom would focus more on whether it is undertaken according to the ethical and professional standards of the subject discipline, rather than on the location of the action.

However, since both views agree on protection for actions on campus, a presumption in favor of academic freedom protection might be claimed for opinion, expression or conduct taking place within the higher education space—including not only classrooms and laboratories but also offices, corridors, and courtyards of campus facilities and in textbooks, teaching materials, journals and publications, websites, and university emails. What do you think? Is everything inside the university campus protected by academic freedom? Is anything outside that space protected by academic freedom?

Question: ‘Open’ versus ‘closed’ forms of expression

Some may question the term “closed” forms of expression (column D of the chart) and how it might be distinguished from “open” forms of expression (column C). This course suggests that “closed” forms of expression are defined by the “inability or unwillingness” to entertain even the possibility of changing your position based on new information or evidence. If you are not willing to consider new evidence, then you are not engaging in academic discourse. Do you agree? If not, why?

(Remember, even if something is not protected by academic freedom, it can still be protected by freedom of expression. Religious belief, for example, may not be protected by academic freedom, but is still protected under general free expression principles.)

Question: Is there a difference between protest and violence? Disruption and destruction?

Some may question what constitutes “violent or coercive” conduct (column E in the chart) and, in particular, how to assess protests or other organized actions, on or off campus, that involve various forms of interruptions or disruptions. Is there a difference, for example, between protesters blocking access to a lecture hall for a few minutes, and protesters blocking access to campus for an hour? For a day? For weeks? Is time the only factor? What other factors matter? Number of participants? Location? Any harms resulting? What do you think?

Question: Who gets to exercise academic freedom?

Finally, it is generally understood that professors, researchers and other academic staff get to exercise academic freedom. But do students have academic freedom? What about members of the public? What do you think? Who has the right to exercise academic freedom?

Your answer might depend on what you think the purpose of academic freedom is. This course suggests that academic freedom is, at least in part, a general human right, exercised by the academic profession, for the benefit of everyone in society. This view suggests a parallel between academic freedom and media or press freedom, which is widely recognized to be exercised by journalists for the benefit of society. What do you think? Why?

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This article is from the free online course:

Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters

University of Oslo

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