Saving Free Speech from Academic-Freedom Committees

September 2022

Academic freedom is under threat. It’s indirectly under threat from administrators through “proxy reprisals,” as Suzanne Nossel explains; it’s directly under threat from professors who want to police their colleagues’ rights to teach and conduct research. The professors in question advocate oversight under the guise of protecting academic freedom from the dangers of free speech.

The notion that professors need to save academic freedom from the excesses of free speech has recently featured prominently in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Jennifer Ruth and Michael Bérubé, following their argument in It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom, have written that academic-freedom committees, composed of a panel of peers from relevant fields of study, should act as expertise filters placing limits on acceptable speech by academics. In the absence of such filters more false and harmful claims – conspiracy theories, hate speech, odious white supremacist beliefs, and so on – will circulate, threatening democracy. (Previous articles in the Chronicle by Ruth are here and here.)

Ruth and Bérubé supply a second reason for their claim that academic-freedom committees will serve the interests of democracy. A healthy democracy, unlike an authoritarian state, protects independent processes by which knowledge is created and disseminated, including knowledge that threatens the privilege and status of the powerful. Since academic-freedom committees would protect the creation and dissemination of knowldge, they would help universities maintain their independence and fulfill their useful social function.

Viewed through a professional-ethics lens, these arguments both overlap and diverge from ones made on behalf of other professional groups. Physicians, lawyers, and accountants all claim that their expertise uniquely privileges their assessments of competency and that their self-regulation protects the public. In one respect this is also true about academics. Published research subject to expert peer review, in health care for instance where members of the public may act on research findings, is far more likely to protect people from harm and provide benefits than research not subject to such oversight.

However, one fatal flaw in their proposal is that their conception of the operation of academic-freedom committees is overbroad. Not just limited to distinguishing between so-called high and low-value speech in science, they would extend it to policing acceptable views regarding broader questions about justice and the good life. This reeks of elitism. It calls to mind what the philosopher Bernard Williams dubbed “Government House Utilitarianism,” the view that moral truth can only be understood by an elite who should direct the lives of the majority who cannot understand these truths and so must be manipulated into following rules of conduct. The arrogance of the Government House Utilitarian consists in failing to understand that disagreements about justice and the nature of the good life extend beyond facts to include values.

Conflicts involving values are a ubiquitous part of life, both in our own search for happiness and in our dealings with others, and it is a basic tenet of democracy that such matters should not be left to “experts” or academic-freedom committees to decide. Democratic governments partly derive their moral authority from their respect for the dignity of their citizens, a respect grounded in a commitment to protect fundamental liberty rights. Democracy’s defenders understand that we all have a stake in determining the values we should live by, and the values we should prize in our associations with our fellow citizens. They also recognize that since we are different, we may reach different conclusions about which values we should prize and how much we should prize them.

Those committed to democratic processes understand that when such conflicts over values in the social sphere inevitably arise, we should resolve them both fairly and in ways that acknowledge our equal status as bearers of dignity. This is not to say that these are matters devoid of truth and the need for expertise – far from it – just that they are to varying degrees reasonably contestable. And unlike questions in science that rest on a foundation of specialized knowledge that most do not possess, they are not abstruse matters beyond most people’s comprehension. When it comes to identifying and weighing our fundamental values, the onus is on those who claim expertise to explain and justify their views to the rest of us. That is how democracy should work.

Ruth and Bérubé misidentify the point of academic freedom, at least as it concerns questions about justice and the good life. In these domains, it is not needed to insulate from scrutiny the supposed expertise of academics that ordinary people cannot understand; it is needed to advance the production of knowledge, especially in the face of traditional concerns of bias or wrongful self-interest from tyrants and other bad actors. Ruth and Bérubé are right to want to protect the pursuit of truth and the production of knowledge from special interests but these special interests are increasingly operating within the professoriate. Such interests, operating under the guise of “academic-freedom committees”, would likely function as ideologically uniform censorship boards wrongly restricting the speech and research of colleagues who entertain ideas the boards deem hateful. Although these threats from political hegemony could arise across the political spectrum, they presently manifest in a preponderance of professors who are left of center, especially in the humanities and liberal arts, both in the United States (“Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty,” by Mitchell Langbert) and Europe (“Are universities left-wing bastions?”, by Herman G. van de Werfhorst).

This leads us to a second fatal flaw in their proposal. Their claim that academic-freedom committees will function independently of government interference and thereby protect the pursuit of truth and the production of knowledge is dangerous intellectual hubris. A wealth of evidence identifies and explains our tribal affinities and related cognitive biases, including the ways in which tribalism tends to shape our beliefs about reality. The idea that academics are somehow immune to tribalism is risible and evinces a lack of understanding of the value of science. Science is valuable insofar as it acts as a social check on, or antidote to, our individual tendencies to engage in confirmation bias, tendencies that are exacerbated by tribalism. In higher education science does this by entrenching the protections of academic freedom, including the freedom to think, speak, and pursue research. Consider, for example, the following passage from the American Association of University Professors, “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure”:

“A college or university is a marketplace of ideas, and it cannot fulfill its purposes of transmitting, evaluating, and extending knowledge if it requires conformity with any orthodoxy of content and method.”

Academic-freedom committees pose just such a threat from an ideologically-driven “orthodoxy of content.”

In a recent review their book entitled “What Are the Limits of Academic Freedom?”, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder criticizes Ruth and Bérubé’s claim that the problem of academic freedom protecting “legions of racist professors” is “unfathomably larger” than the two professors they call out (Bruce Gilley and Amy Wax). Indeed, Snyder observes, by the end of their book they have only identified three individuals who they claim should have been denied the protections of academic freedom for their allegedly hateful views – Gilley, Wax, and Eric Rasmusen – hardly an overwhelming, empirically-based case for creating academic-freedom committees.

In contrast, there is plenty of evidence that academic-freedom committees consisting of a preponderance of leftist professors would practice tribalism by censoring what they wrongly judge to be hateful speech. Consider an example familiar to SAFS members. When Rebecca Tuvel was an assistant professor at Memphis State University, she submitted an article to the academic journal Hypatia that passed through the normal review process and was subsequently published online in the spring of 2017. Soon after its publication the article generated considerable anger leading to an online petition signed by 830 professional academics calling for its retraction on the grounds that “its availability causes harm” (The original petition is archived here.)

That the petitioners, had they been functioning as an academic-freedom committee, would have judged Tuvel’s article as containing low-value, hate speech undeserving of the protections of academic freedom is clear from their petition and especially their demand that the article be retracted, and not because they believed either that she plagiarized the work of another scholar or that she falsified data – two valid reasons for retracting an article. No, their opposition was tribalistic and ideological. In her article Tuvel considers “a widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex” and notes that “Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism” – ideas that contravene current progressive orthodoxy. Had the petitioners been acting as professional academics interested in the ethical functioning of the marketplace of ideas, then they would have requested space to rebut Tuvel’s position. Instead, they stated that it was not their aim “to provide a critical response” to her argument.

Quite apart from the petition itself, the related mobbing, bullying, and backstabbing by the feminist scholars involved, many of them senior, was disgraceful. Tuvel observed that several academics privately expressed sympathy for her but did not speak out for fear of suffering a backlash themselves. Even worse, some of those who privately expressed sympathy subsequently publicly denounced her. In a later article Tuvel writes that

“Amidst online condemnation of my article, over 800 academics signed a letter calling for its retraction. Hypatia’s associate editorial board subsequently apologized for its publication. Feminist colleagues and academics discussed and speculated about various aspects of my identity online, attacked me personally, and accused me of violence. I was called ‘racist,’ ‘transphobic,’ a ‘TERF,’ a ‘disgusting person,’ ‘Becky,’ and ‘Rebecky Tuvel.’ People offered to contact individuals on my tenure committee, and former feminist mentors emailed and called me in an effort to pressure me to retract my article. … Throughout it all, the condemnation and ostracism from various parts of the feminist community took a significant toll on my psychological health.”

The Tuvel affair is a case study in trying to impose what Jonathan Rauch calls “coercive conformity”. The petitioners tried to exploit an irrational fear of “emotional safetyism” to isolate, intimidate, and demoralize both Tuvel and the editors of Hypatia. The case also illustrates why in the current climate, especially in the liberal arts and humanities, Ruth and Bérubé’s academic-freedom committees are likely to be far more damaging to the mission of the university than any imagined threats to democracy from professors exercising their rights to freedom of speech under the umbrella of their academic freedom rights. Whereas in an ethically regulated marketplace of ideas such purportedly objectionable speech can be challenged and repudiated, the operation of academic-freedom committees would likely stifle dissent.

The Hypatia petitioners’ demands were unethical; theirs was an ideological act that attempted to subvert the healthy functioning of a valuable academic process, one that is at the heart of professional academic enquiry. They engaged in professional academic misconduct and, judging by the content of the petition, many of those 830 academics likely endorse current progressive orthodoxy, consisting in what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay refer to as forms of “reified postmodernism”. Ironically, Ruth and Bérubé’s proposal, despite being couched as promoting and protecting democracy, is profoundly anti-democratic: first, because of its elitism and, second, because of the reified postmodernism from which it emanates, a postmodernism notoriously hostile to the liberal enlightenment project from which our modern understanding of the laudable principles of democracy have been generated.