Racial Slurs and Academic Freedom

A RASH of racial incidents at various university campuses has led institutions like Stanford, Michigan, and Wisconsin to cobble together policies forbidding insulting and demeaning speech. Both the political left (the American Civil Liberties Union) and the political right (Chester Finn's broadside in the September issue of Commentary) have attacked these policies as a form of ``censorship,'' especially regrettable when it infects universities that pledge themselves to preserving freedom of thought.

The fact that both right and left have entered the fray suggests either that such restrictions are just wrong, wrong, wrong, or that both left and right are muddled about the relationship between academic freedom and the right of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. I think the reason is muddle.

It is blithely assumed both inside and outside the academic quad that the two freedoms are somehow the same. They are not. Since the Bill of Rights permits any fool to get up and say whatever pops into his head, the attempt by college deans to dampen demeaning discourse may violate fundamental First Amendment guarantees. But it does not therefore follow that they violate that special freedom of speech guaranteed under the title of ``academic freedom.'' Universities may well be within their academic rights to exclude insulting speech.

What is the difference between the civil right of free speech and academic freedom? Academic freedom is a privilege given to professors who have attained a certain level of competence; the faculty member is granted a ``license'' to speak freely in his or her special discipline. It is like the license given to a surgeon, who because of demonstrated competence is free to do with bodies what to the rest of us is forbidden. When the faculty member is granted tenure he or she receives full academic freedom.

One of the more interesting administrative issues I have ever dealt with (not at Rochester, let me say) was a request by a faculty member to teach an anti-Darwinian course in creationism. He was an Evangelical Christian, but he was no biologist. The request was refused on the ground that his academic freedom (license to teach) did not cover subjects beyond his demonstrated academic competence.

One could have refused a request from William Shockley to teach a course on race for the same reason. A Nobel prize in physics is a wonderful thing, but it does not make one a brain surgeon or a sociologist.

This should indicate that freedom of speech and academic freedom are distinct. My faculty friend was free to practice his brand of Christianity in the larger society, but not in the classroom. Dr. Shockley did not lack public platforms for dispensing his odd racial notions, but he had not earned the academic rostrum.

Academic freedom has expanded, however, on university campuses beyond the limited sense of a tenure right. Junior faculty expect academic freedom; students receive broad license under the same rubric. Even so, I would insist that the freedom of academic participants is more restricted than the First Amendment rights.

If there is a freedom to profess for those learned and attested, so there is a freedom to learn that applies broadly to all who voluntarily choose the life of the academic community. We come together as a community of scholars to learn from one another. Racial, sexual, ethnic, religious slurs implicitly rule out learning from folks of that color, gender, or faith. Stereotyped insults, or other forms of exclusionary speech, are antithetical to a learning community; they say I can't get anything from your head because it is on the wrong sort of body. Any individual within the academic community who indulges in such exclusionary attitudes violates the sense of this special community.

Having made these careful ``academic'' distinctions, I will admit that it is not always as easy to separate academic function from civil right as in the case of my Evangelical colleague who wanted to demolish Darwin. When is a student a student and not a citizen indulging (offensively) in free-speech guarantees? Some offenses are clearly in the ear of the beholder. Slurs are bad enough, but constructing an atmosphere in which speech is under everlasting scrutiny for innuendo and affront could be worse. Nevertheless, when all is said and undone, it is important to recall that academic communities have a right to demand a seriousness of speech and community that is more sensitive than society at large.

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