Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Academic Freedom Definition:

The right, without outside interference or censorship, of freedom of teaching, discussions, research, the expression of academic opinion, and to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.

Related Terms: First Amendment

A formal United Nations document, called Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, published in 1997 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), defined academic freedom in these terms, at §27:

"... the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussions, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies."

The three most likely sources of interference with academic freedom are commercial interests, government and from the administration of the academic institution itself.

Madam Justice Paperny of the Court of Appeal for Alberta in Pridgen v. University of Calgary (2012):

"Academic freedom and freedom of expression are not conceptually competing values. Freedom of expression, of course, is guaranteed to all Canadians. Academic freedom is usually confined to the professional freedom of the individual academic in universities and other institutions of higher education; the freedom to put forward new ideas and unpopular opinions without placing him or herself in jeopardy within the institution. It has also been described as having an aspect of academic self-rule – the right of academic staff to participate in academic decisions of the university, and, more broadly, an aspect of institutional autonomy – the right of the institution to make decisions, at least with respect to academic matters, free from government interference.

"Academic freedom and freedom of expression are inextricably linked. There is an obvious element of free expression in the protection of academic freedom, whether limited to the traditional conception of academic freedom as protecting the individual academic professional, or applied more broadly to promote discussion in the university community as a whole.

"In my view, there is no legitimate conceptual conflict between academic freedom and freedom of expression. Academic freedom and the guarantee of freedom of expression contained in the Charter are handmaidens to the same goals; the meaningful exchange of ideas, the promotion of learning, and the pursuit of knowledge."

In University of California Regents v. Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell of the United States Supreme Court adopted these words:

"Academic freedom, though not a specifically enumerated constitutional right, long has been viewed as a special concern of the First Amendment. The freedom of a university to make its own judgments as to education includes the selection of its student body....

"It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conductive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail the four essential freedoms of a university—to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study."academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.

In his 1972 opinion in Healy v James, Justice Powell had previously written:

"The college classroom, with its surrounding environs, is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas, and we break no new constitutional ground in reaffirming this Nation’s dedication to safeguarding academic freedom."

Justice Brennan of the same court, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents of University of the State of NY wrote:

"Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.

"The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools. The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas. The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth "out of a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritative selection."

In a 1957 decision, Sweezy v. New Hampshire, Chief Justice Warren wrote the majority opinion of the United States Supermen Court:

"The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

In a footnote to his 1985 decision in Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, Justice Stevens of that same court wrote this of academic freedom:

"Academic freedom thrives not only on the independent and uninhibited exchange of ideas among teachers and students, but also, and somewhat inconsistently, on autonomous decision making by the academy itself..."


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