Statement on Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers

By Mark Criley

At its October 2023 meeting, the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure approved a revised and expanded version of its 2007 statement Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers. The state­ment reaffirms the Association’s conviction that the right of faculty members and students to hear speakers of their choosing “is an essential condition of a university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom” and that administrations should block or rescind those invitations only where there is “strong evidence of imminent danger” if the speaker were to appear. It also addresses the expression rights of those who protest controversial speakers and cautions administrators against an overly broad interpretation of the “heckler’s veto”: “It is essential to distinguish between those actions that actually prevent a speaker from speaking and those that, while arguably unruly or uncivil in their modes of expression, do not ulti­mately prevent the speaker’s own expression from taking place.”

In addition, the statement draws a connection between canceled speaker invitations and partisan political intrusion into public education, since “both infringe upon the open exchange of ideas on college and university campuses in mutually reinforc­ing ways and diminish the right to hear and to learn.” Political intrusions, the statement explains, typically target research and teach­ing about racial and gender equity, LGBTQ+ studies, climate change, and other disfavored topics. New laws in some states now prohibit classroom discussion of these topics, and political attacks on specific disciplines now join with speaker controversies to restrict academic freedom. In this climate, the statement contends, protecting academic freedom requires more than simply allowing provoca­tive speakers on campus. It also requires supporting those programs under political attack and reaffirm­ing the faculty’s responsibility for curriculum and research.