On the Responsibilities of Academic Freedom

January 2023

Many academics believe that academic freedom, along with the protections of tenure, should protect university faculty from employment sanctions for expressing political views. According to this principle, academics should foster an open intellectual environment in which all are free to express their thoughts on a wide range of topics because it is only out of the robust exchange of ideas that the truth can not only emerge but be seen to be the truth. Consider, for instance, 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. In the words of the United States Supreme Court, ‘Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.’ ”

And this passage on professional ethics also from the AAUP:

“As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. Professors do not discriminate against or harass colleagues. They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates, even when it leads to findings and conclusions that differ from their own.”

I support this principle and so my complaint here is not with it but rather with misguided attempts to overextend its protections by ignoring the corresponding responsibilities that attend our academic freedom rights, responsibilities alluded to in the passage I just quoted. Consider the challenge posed to defenders of academic freedom by the ascension of critical theory ideologues in the university. Many liberals have misjudged the extremist critical theory project, misled, perhaps, by a seemingly common interest in promoting justice. Critical theorists conceive of the advancement of justice in terms of the relief of the oppression of those mistreated based on various “identity markers” and especially certain “intersections” thereof.

Although this characterization may seem somewhat compatible with the views of traditional liberals, liberals pursue the advancement of justice from within the framework of the enlightenment project, a project that critical theory ideologues explicitly reject. So although there are reasons that can be adduced in support of those who are actually oppressed, critical theory extremists are not really interested in these because they are not really interested in justifying their views. Their main interest is in advancing their activist agenda and to this end they use the techniques of cancel culture. Rather than expressing the sort of dissent that liberals want to safeguard, they engage in acts of social deviance, thereby renouncing the responsibilities that attend our rights to academic freedom.

In Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay trace the roots of contemporary cancelling to Michel Foucault’s claim that knowledge is socially constructed and that all claims to knowledge are really expressions of the dominance of the powerful to support and maintain their position in the social hierarchy. For post-modernists knowledge claims do not describe an independent reality, they are merely performative: they function to entrench the interests of the powerful and subordinate and oppress the weak and marginalized. Under this analysis those familiar slogans that appear to be hyperbolic – “Disagreement is oppression”, “Argument is assault”, “Words are violence” – take on a different meaning, one consistent with the subversive agenda of the critical theory ideologue. From their perspective seeking to refute these claims by rational persuasion is to be complicit in their regime. On this view disagreement – a tool of reason and the enlightenment – is oppressive in that it is a tool of the oppressors. For the critical theory ideologue, engaging in rational persuasion signals complicity with the oppressors. Instead, oppression must be fought via the subversion of the system from within, including activists operating under the guise of higher education intellectuals.

The University as an Ethically Regulated Marketplace of Ideas

In the opening of their 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP identified the search for the truth as the goal grounding both a right to academic freedom and the protections of tenure:

“The purpose of this statement is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

From society’s perspective the higher education enterprise is justified insofar as those working within it seek and propagate the truth. Of course, since people often disagree about whether some claim is true, the university, as the AAUP notes, is best conceived as a “marketplace of ideas” in which participants have a responsibility to explain and defend their claims by appeal to evidence and argument, including in response to critics who likewise marshal evidence and arguments to support their criticisms.

Reasonable people endorse basic human rights to freedoms of conscience, thought, and expression. This includes the rights of critical theory extremists to believe whatever they want to believe, and to say, within the justified limits of our rights to free speech, whatever they want to say. Reasonable people also endorse rights to academic freedom but those who would argue that these rights also protect the advancement of the critical theory ideologue’s political agenda have lost sight of the role of the responsibilities that attend our academic freedom rights, responsibilities generated from the very same values that justify those rights. These responsibilities limit the scope of academic freedom. To see this consider first a simple justification for limiting our right to freedom of expression. Your right to freedom of expression is partly justified by the role that exercising it plays in promoting the truth. The pursuit of the truth is justified by the contributions it makes to your individual well-being and the common good. Hence, since falsely yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater” or “He’s got a bomb!” in a busy airport just to see what might happen next poses a gratuitous threat to public safety, your right to free speech does not include such utterances. Otherwise, the values that justify these rights would be subverted by the speech in question.

Another way of framing this point is by noting that in addition to our academic freedom rights, we also have corresponding duties to protect and promote the values that justify these rights. This includes the duties of professors to not suppress the exercising of the academic freedom rights of others and the duties of university administrators to safeguard the processes or methods by which individual beliefs are propagated and defended, and via which they are publicly recognized. In protecting the subversive activities of critical theory extremists, university administrators have failed to discharge these responsibilities. In this failing they have become complicit in the wrongful subversion of the higher education enterprise. The AAUP claims that colleges and universities, as marketplaces of ideas, cannot fulfill their justified social mission unless they reject an “orthodoxy of content and method”. But this is a mistake. Whereas we should accept the expression of unorthodox beliefs, we must insist upon the orthodox methods that have supported the ethically regulated marketplace of ideas and we should be willing to enforce the protection of these methods including by coercive means if necessary. And this means that academics and university administrators alike should denounce and prohibit the techniques of cancelling.

Intellectuals Are Not Ideologues

Instead of good-faith attempts to identify and promote the demands of justice, subversives promote their self-interest or the interests of some group or groups they favour at the expense of the reasonable interests of others. The critical theory ideologues’ commitment to “social” justice is not academic, nor is it even about justice. It is about employing the techniques and processes of cancel culture to illicitly gain by coercion what cannot be justified by appeal to reason and fairness. However, academic freedom does not protect the practice by academics of coercive methods that effectively limit the rights of their colleagues to exercise their rights to academic freedom.

Defenders of academic freedom champion dissent, and they welcome the expression of ideas, including political ideas, with which they disagree. However, they also discharge their duties to protect and promote the academic freedom rights of their colleagues. All of this is consistent with their identity as intellectuals. Intellectuals believe that ideas should be accepted on their merits and regardless of their political implications. They welcome dissent because they view the pursuits of truth and knowledge as manifesting in competitive forms of cooperation in which scholars and researchers engage in ethically regulated competitions to obtain what the economist Paul Samuelson referred to as a “public good”.1

Unlike rivalrous goods such as food, public or non-rivalrous goods, such as the truth, can be enjoyed simultaneously by all. Thus, although the competition to obtain truth and knowledge can (and should) be adversarial, since the outcome is non-rivalrous, the process is essentially cooperative and generally beneficial.

Ignorance about this cooperative form of competition is one neglected dimension of the misology of the critical theory extremist who irrationally loathes all forms of competition for ideological reasons, viewing them as patriarchal and oppressive. This is not a rationally justified belief; it is a political commitment, one that reflects the ideologue’s identity. Ideologues, unlike intellectuals, believe that ideas should be accepted for their political implications and regardless of their merits. Their misology is evidenced in their adoption of the techniques of cancel culture in their pursuit of their political aims. Since these techniques subvert the ethical functioning of the marketplace of ideas, they operate outside the legitimate bounds of academia. As such, they are acts of social deviance.

Jonathan Rauch argues that although both criticism and cancelling take the form of people arguing about something, and thus although they are both forms of social influence, criticism belongs to the realm of truth seeking. It manifests as arguments and evidence aiming to influence opinion via rational persuasion. In contrast, cancellers seek to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Cancelling belongs to the realm of propaganda warfare: it seeks to organize and manipulate a social or media environment to demoralize, deplatform, isolate, or intimidate an adversary. Rauch argues that whereas those engaged in the academic project care whether statements are true, cancellers care about a statement’s social effects especially as this bears on its political consequences. Intellectuals embrace viewpoint diversity; cancelling is “coercive conformity”.


The hypocrisy of critical theory ideologues engaging in socially deviant political activism, while operating under the protections of academic freedom and tenure, all in the name of “social” justice, is perverse. The protections of academic freedom do not license the methods of cancel culture.

1 Paul Samuelson, “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, 36(4), (November 1954): 387.

2 Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Brookings Institution Press, 2012, Chapter 7.