Editor's Introduction - Volume 9

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in a Time of Crisis
By Rachel Ida Buff

When I applied for the role of faculty editor of this journal last summer, I was motivated in part by some confusion about the issues involved. Increasingly, the word freedom appeared to be at odds with the intellectual labor of writing, teaching, and speaking. An ardent contemporary anti-intellectualism posits a pseudo-egalitarian “freedom of speech” in opposition to the power of academic knowledge and responsible journalism, generating a false discourse about “fake news.” Dissent, particularly in the form of protest, is increasingly criminalized, sometimes in the name of “free expression.”

As an immigration historian with research experience in the repression of the foreign-born, I am aware of how precarious civil liberties can be. And as an organizer for the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee AAUP chapter and Wisconsin state AAUP conference, I work against assaults on academic freedom in the form of threats to tenure and academic governance. I tend to think about academic freedom and civil liberties as part of the same overall enterprise, and to be in favor of more of both. But recent events complicated this picture.

The same summer I became faculty editor of this journal, a “campus free-speech” bill, inspired by Goldwater Institute model legislation, was introduced in the Wisconsin state legislature. Supported by some of the legislators and regents who led the charge to gut tenure and faculty governance in 2015, the bill proclaimed the value of what it referred to as “free expression.” It declared the university’s openness to “any speaker” invited by students or faculty, precluding administrators from refusing a platform to anyone. Further, the bill mandated sanctions against student protesters who were deemed to be interfering with a speaker’s right to free expression. It dictated the creation of an ominous-sounding “Free Expression Council,” to be appointed by the board of regents to preside over this coercive-sounding regime. Nothing about this free-speech” bill sounded at all “free” to me. Although the bill stalled in the state senate, the board of regents approved a similar policy. [1]

The proposed bill and regents’ policy came on the heels of controversy at my own campus. In December, 2016, then-darling of the white supremacist “alt-right” Milo Yiannopoulos came to campus. In a crowded auditorium on the second floor of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Union, he displayed slides of a transgender UWM student and mocked her while protesters downstairs faced barricades maintained by city and university police.

In the months leading up to Yiannopoulos’s appearance, our AAUP chapter worked with progressive student groups to raise concerns to campus administration about hosting a proponent of division and hate on our campus. Consistently, administrators responded to our concerns by invoking “free speech.” Yiannopoulos, they said, had been invited by a newly formed chapter of Turning Point USA, a student organization, at least in name. Therefore, to refuse to allow a chosen speaker a platform would constitute a denial of student rights to free expression.

I participated in these efforts ambivalently. I loathe the on-campus presence of figures like Yiannopoulos: Richard Spencer, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter—take your pick; there is a deep bench of such proponents of hate. Their presence on campus undermines the project of the public university and the Wisconsin Idea, which provides democratic access to education. While I recognized that our administration was caught in a difficult position, I distrusted its response, which consisted of a lot of hand-wringing and a small, low-profile alternative event the night of Yiannopoulos’s appearance.

But at the same time, I was aware of the short distance in time from here to the McCarthy era and the widespread practice of loyalty oaths and exclusion from employment in education based on suspected political beliefs. These protocols were mostly deployed against leftists. In general, it makes sense to me to allow speakers on campus and, simultaneously, to organize against them.

Does the polarization between anything-goes-on-campus and Nazis-have-rights-too on the one hand and strict ideological scrutiny on the other really represent the only way to consider questions of free speech on campus? Of course not.

For one thing, as Joan Scott pointed out in last year’s volume of this journal, academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same thing. According to Scott, academic freedom is based on peer-reviewed, “disciplinary competence” in the pursuit of knowledge. AAUP definitions of academic freedom also protect “extramural utterances” by faculty.

Scott distinguishes academic freedom from free speech, writing that right-wing

invocation of free speech has collapsed an important distinction between the First Amendment right of free speech that we all enjoy in some circumstances and the principle of academic freedom that refers to teachers and the knowledge they produce and convey. [2]

Or, as my colleague Aneesh Aneesh put it just as the campus free-speech bill was gaining traction at the Wisconsin statehouse and UW campuses were being asked by the legislature to account for the ideological leanings of all invited speakers: faculty don’t invite speakers to campus based on ideology; we invite them because of their proven excellence in their fields. Academic freedom allows scholars to screen for “disciplinary competence” and create knowledge. “Free speech” policies then, undermines academic freedom as well as freedom of expression.[3]

Intentionally incendiary visits from right-wing ideologues like Yiannopoulos take place in context of contemporary assaults on the university and on academic freedom in general. Questions of freedom of expression do obtain, but so do issues of democratic access and common welfare. As Judith Butler writes, “The resistance of the university to external political interference demonstrates the relationship between academic freedom and the idea of the university as a sanctuary.”[4]

We crafted the call for papers for this volume of the journal to explore intersections of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I wanted to understand the language and politics of our current moment, and to be able to place them in a historical context.

I have been tremendously pleased by the response to our September 2017 call for papers. The intelligence and broad solidarity of our colleagues around the world convey strategies to understand and survive our current predicament. Editing this volume has been an education in questions of free speech and academic freedom.

This volume begins with “‘Affirming Our Values’: African American Scholars, White Virtual Mobs, and the Complicity of White University Administrators,” by Stephen C. Finley, Biko M. Gray, and Lori Latrice Martin. I selected this article to lead this volume dedicated to “free speech” because of the groundwork it does in destabilizing the idea of equal access to such rights. The authors deploy an Afro-pessimistic perspective, arguing that neither speech nor academia has ever been unequivocally “free” for African Americans. Suspicious of remedial moves, like “diversity” initiatives, the authors characterize Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs)—the majority of US colleges and universities—as defending supposedly universalist values at the expense of faculty of color. The authors delineate the ways that PWI administrators have responded to “virtual mob” attacks against extramural speech acts by faculty of color by asserting the importance of “institutional values” that come at the cost of black faculty freedom and security.

Two articles written by faculty who have experienced institutional and social media reprisals for extramural speech acts follow: Johnny Eric Williams’s “Academic Freedom Double Standard: ‘Freedom’ for Courtiers, Suppression for Critical Scholars” and Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt’s “When Free Speech Disrupts Diversity Initiatives: What We Value and What We Do Not”. Both authors argue that university policies regarding free speech and academic freedom can function, overtly or behind the scenes, to eviscerate what Dutt-Ballerstadt dubs as “diversity concerns,” or the very presence of faculty, students, and administrators of color.

In June 2017 Johnny Eric Williams tweeted twice about racial injustice in response to the police murders of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyle. He used a current hashtag, #letthemfuckingdie, which emerged after the shooting incident at the congressional baseball game in October 2016. Williams delineates the “white outrage” provoked by these two tweets, and the response of his employer, Trinity College. The Trinity administration issued press releases critical of Williams and “usurp(ed) faculty governance” to place him on enforced leave. (Editor’s note: the formation and advocacy of a militant AAUP chapter at Trinity, along with a letter from the national AAUP office criticizing the administration’s actions, resulted in Williams’s reinstatement.) Like Biko, Gray, and Martin, in the article that begins this volume, Williams locates the events of 2017 in a historical context of white supremacy and black oppression. He juxtaposes the ongoing efforts of “critical scholars” working against white supremacy with the ways that the structures of academia reinforce it.

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt also points to the predominance of white supremacy in higher education. She frames recent incidents of extramural speech acts and university sanctions in terms of new funding models generated by educational austerity, which are increasingly beholden to state politics and private donors. The confluence of structural changes and assaults by the virtual mobs described by Williams—as well as Finley, Gray, and Martin— amount to what Dutt-Ballerstadt describes as the “past tense of diversity initiatives,” undermining the work of historical and contemporary freedom movements to transform higher education.

Taken together, these three articles make clear that academic freedom and freedom of speech, to the extent that they have ever been widely accessible in institutions of higher education, are currently under siege. The next five selections explore some specific institutional ramifications of this situation.

The academic workforce is increasingly made up of contingent laborers, whose conditions of employment change the terms of academic freedom. In “At the Margins of University Work: the Influence of Campus Climate and Part-Time Faculty Status on Academic Values,” Cassie L. Barnhardt and Carson W. Phillips use survey research to explore how contingent and part-time faculty experience academic freedom. Their findings indicate both widespread feelings of isolation on the part of contingent laborers and their ongoing commitment to the “disciplinary competence” described by Scott. Their findings point to a remarkable contradiction: those least protected by policies safeguarding academic freedom are deeply committed to it in their research and teaching. As institutional reliance on precarious labor continues to increase, the future of academic freedom lies with the largely unprotected work of contingent faculty.

In “Diversity Work: Testing the Waters of Academic Freedom and the Cultural Climate on Campus,” Kevicha Echols and Juan Morales Flores relate their ultimately successful attempt to create support for faculty from underrepresented groups on their diverse, New York City campus. Defining “diversity work” as “the commitment to develop programs, workshops, and opportunities to dialogue about the experiences, issues, and concerns of the intersectional identities, group affiliations, and ideas that exist within academia,” the authors question how such efforts relate to academic freedom.” In their endeavors to create a more inclusive campus, Echols and Morales Flores encountered administrative intransigence as well as a general feeling on campus that they describe as “two distinctive worlds operating in the same institution.” They argue that different rules obtain in these distinctive worlds, demonstrating that academic freedom is not a universal good even on one campus.

Leah P. Hollis’s qualitative, ethnographic work in “The Ironic Interplay of Free Speech and Silencing: Does Workplace Bullying Compromise the Cherished Value of Free Speech in Higher Education?” illuminates a contradiction, in which “free speech” can be used to justify uncivil conduct, in the classroom or among colleagues. Exploring the micropolitics of power in the academy, her study finds that a staggering two-thirds of employees report being affected by bullying. This widespread practice occurs along institutional as well as social hierarchies; those in “lower paying jobs with less power,” predominantly women and people of color, report such instances in disproportionate numbers. The safeguards of the tenure system do not prevent abuses of power within faculty meetings; academic governance can be the site of the kind of bullying that changes the terms of who gets to speak, who is heard. For Hollis, civility offers an alternative to bullying rather than an impediment to free speech.

The notion of “safe spaces,” with particular rules about civility and inclusion, has come under political fire as creating situations that obstruct free speech. Jaime Weida wades into this volatile issue to argue in favor of safe spaces on campus. Like many of the other authors in this volume, Weida’s essay, “Free Speech, Safe Spaces and Teaching in the Current US Political Climate” contends that academic work does not and never has take(n) place on a level playing field. In this context, “safe spaces” function to allow free speech for those who are silenced elsewhere. Weida writes: “The privileged voices calling for ‘free speech’ over ‘safe spaces’ seek to further silence the voices of those who, previously, have largely been voiceless.” Her argument connects to Judith Butler’s assertion, quoted above, that the university functions in part as a sanctuary for academic freedom.

How are questions of academic freedom and freedom of speech different at private institutions? In “Stopping the Presses: Private Universities and Gag Orders on Media Interviews,” Frank LoMonte and Linda Riedemann Norbut make a historical and legal inquiry into the question of freedom of speech on private campuses. What rights do employees of private institutions have to speak to the press about the circumstances of their labor? Tracing the history of protected faculty speech on private campuses, the authors note the salience of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as well as the AAUP in protecting faculty rights. The NLRB has affirmed some rights for such employees in recent decades; however, some of the strongest statements in favor of free speech have been rescinded since 2017 by the incoming presidential administration.

The five contributions elaborated above reveal fault lines in the academy created by white supremacy and austerity politics. And while the three that follow do this as well, I have grouped them separately. With each of these three submissions, I was tempted to respond to the authors by reminding them that this journal does not, as yet, publish dystopian fiction. Of course, the terrain they describe—guns on campus and the institution of “bioaccountability” measures for faculty in Mexican universities—is all too real. But the implications of these three articles anticipate grim futures for university workplace rights and for academic freedom.

The ace legal research of Elizabeth Esch, Megan Jones, and David Roediger in “Academic Freedom under the Gun: A Report from Kansas” broadcasts connections between curbs on academic freedom and the rise of campus carry laws authorizing the presence of concealed weapons in state universities. While taking part in a broad coalition organizing against campus carry, the authors “heard, only sometimes directly but from all angles, that in the very act of speaking to the issues of workplace safety and pedagogy raised by campus carry, we were breaking the law, and that our being allowed to speak resulted from the sufferance of administrators who might have disciplined protesters had they wished.” This belief delimited faculty and administrative participation in the opposition to campus carry, which, the authors point out, is in part a workplace safety issue. The authors trace the federal and state history of limitations on academic freedom around gun control, uncovering connections between austerity politics and the pro-gun agenda. Despite the grim implications of their research, the authors maintain hope in collective action and grassroots redefinition of questionable public policy.

Drawing on interviews and survey research, Patricia Somers and Nicholas Phelps limn the campus carry landscape in “Not Chilly Enough? Texas Campus Carry and Academic Freedom.” The authors state plainly that “campus carry has added a new dimension to the chilling of academic freedom.” A preponderance of faculty members report changing their teaching to deal with the threats posed to workplace safety by campus carry; all expressed concern about the future of academic freedom in Texas. Further, as in Kansas, administrative responses to such concerns have often been critical of the faculty expressing them. The authors call for broad comparative study of other states with similar policies; for example, campus carry bills have been repeatedly introduced in the Wisconsin state legislature, though none has yet become law.

For those not familiar with the current situation prevailing in Latin American higher education, Blanca and María-Elena Torres-Olave’s “Managing the Academic Racehorse: Bioaccountability, Surveillance, and the Crafting of Docile Faculty in Mexican Universities” may provide some insomnia-inducing reading. The authors track the implementation of biometric controls to monitor faculty during “work hours.” While university administrations frame such measures as improving “faculty accountability and transparency,” the authors view the advent of bioaccountability as a strategy to manage the historical political power of universities. The authors trace surveillance of faculty from performance-based funding to biometric technology, noting its repressive implications.

This volume concludes where it might have begun, with Joseph B. Walzer’s review of Nancy McLean’s important book, Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Walzer contextualizes the long game played by far-right operators against racial equality and public education by placing us with him at the anti-austerity demonstrations in Madison in 2011. He explains McLean’s crucial work in revealing “the racial politics of neoliberalism and the libertarian movement’s reliance on deception and stealth to advance their agenda.”

If, like me, you have trouble sleeping to begin with and the essays in this volume only make that worse, take heart! From conspiracies in Virginia, to guns in Kansas, to electronic eyes in Chihuahua, from workplace bullies, to gag orders, to the struggle to create diversity workshops, virtually all of the authors represented here note that collective resistance matters. Author Johnny Eric Williams reclaimed his rightful position at Trinity College because of solidarity with his colleagues in the AAUP. As Walzer puts it at the conclusion of his review, we “build our resistance from (t)here—treating this not as a foregone conclusion, but as a fight in which we are already committed.”








[1]State of Wisconsin 2017 Legislature, http://legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/59/kremer/media/1316/17-2408_1.pdf?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss, accessed 8/13/18. For more information about campus free-speech legislation, see the AAUP’s report, Campus Free-Speech Legislation: History, Progress, and Problems, April 2018.

[2] Joan Scott, “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom,” Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 8, 2017.

[3] Aneesh at UWM Faculty Senate Meeting, Spring 2017.

[4] Judith Butler, “The Criminalization of Knowledge: Why the Struggle for Academic Freedom is the Struggle for Democracy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 27, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Criminalization-of/243501.