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When I first joined the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, I was puzzled by my fellow reformers’ positions on free speech at universities.

On the one hand, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) aggressively defends students’ rights to free speech and goes to court if necessary to protect them against restrictive codes. On the other hand, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) chastises faculty members for expressing too much freedom of speech by letting their personal political opinions intrude into the classroom.

These actions both involve”academic freedom” – a term of some uncertainty. I wondered, “Should I be against it or for it?”

Thanks to a paper that the Pope Center commissioned from Donald Downs, a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I now have a better understanding. It turns out that, based on tradition, contracts, and legal decisions, lots of people have academic freedom – students, faculty, faculty departments, and institutions themselves (i.e. administrators).

These claims to freedom are.sometimes at odds with one another, which keeps the courts busy. In the United States, legal precedents suggest that academic institutions (and sometimes departments) can set standards that individuals must adhere to. Otherwise, however, individual faculty members can largely teach what they please. And students are free to say what they want (courts have turned down most student speech codes, but schools keep enforcing them).

Another point I learned is that an individual’s academic freedom is both stronger and weaker than the normal freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment. It’s stronger primarily because of tenure. Tenured faculty can say what they want without losing their jobs; non-tenured faculty have less protection in practice, but in theory they too are protected under academic freedom.

Academic free-speech rights are weaker than the typical American’s rights, however, because they must be balanced by academic responsibility. As an individual, I can say that the world is flat; a geologist would be flouting his or her academic responsibilities to say the same thing.

For me, there’s still an unanswered question. Why do people in ivory towers have these special rights, anyway? Downs writes, “Liberal democracies protect academic freedom on the grounds that the open pursuit of knowledge and truth pro- vides substantial benefits to society.” That’s a little squishy to me; my guess is that the cause is a historical development that reflects the power of elites at specific times in history. But if you have academic freedom, use it. We need all the freedom we can get.

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