Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications

By Gwendolyn Bradley

A newly revised report issued for comment in December, Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, brings up to date and expands the Association’s 2004 report on the same topic. It reaffirms the earlier report’s “overriding principle”: “Academic freedom, free inquiry, and freedom of expression within the academic community may be limited to no greater extent in electronic format than they are in print, save for the most unusual situation where the very nature of the medium itself might warrant unusual restrictions.”

The new report seeks to apply this principle to an environment that has been significantly altered by the emergence of social media as vehicles for electronic communication, increased outsourcing, cloud computing, expanded security concerns, and new communications devices. With respect to research, the report reaffirms the 2004 report’s conclusion that “full freedom in research and in the publication of the results applies with no less force to the use of electronic media for the conduct of research and the dissemination of findings and results than it applies to the use of more traditional media.” The report observes that the boundaries of the classroom have expanded in recent years and concludes that “a classroom is not simply a physical space, but any location, real or virtual, in which instruction occurs, and that in classrooms of all types the protections of academic freedom and of the faculty’s rights to intellectual property in lectures, syllabi, exams, and similar materials are as applicable as they have been in the physical classroom.”

The report also discusses access to electronic communications technologies, outsourcing of noninstructional information technology resources, the implications for academic freedom of social media and their use, Freedom of Information Act requests for electronic records, and threats to academic freedom associated with defamation claims against statements made through electronic media such as blogs.

The report concludes that electronic communications are too important for the maintenance of academic freedom to be left entirely to institutional technology offices: “Faculty must participate, preferably through representative institutions of shared governance, in the formulation and implementation of policies governing electronic communications technologies.” The report offers six recommendations for facilitating such participation. It is available on the AAUP’s website at http://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-electronic-communications-2013.

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