Some personal perspectives on academic freedom and free speech

Some background: I'm a white, male, tenured faculty member at UC Davis, and a 3rd generation academic. I work in relatively uncontroversial areas of science (primarily bioinformatics & genomics) at a university that is about as protective of academic freedom as you can get these days. I also live in a country that is (at least formally and legally if not always in practice) more protective of free speech than most countries in the world. For these reasons, I have less to fear from expressing my opinions -- on my blog, on Twitter, or in person -- than virtually anyone, anywhere, ever has.

A week ago, I tweeted Dr. Alice Dreger's article, Wondering if I'm the Next Tim Hunt. I was surprised, frustrated, and upset by the response of a number of colleagues on Twitter, who essentially said "speech that I disagree with is not protected by academic freedom." (This is a bit of a paraphrase, but I think an accurate one; judge for yourselves.)

I must say that I don't really care about Dr. Tim Hunt per se, and that whole issue has been covered very well elsewhere. He made clearly sexist and harmful remarks and is not a credible role model. To the extent that I have anything useful to say, I am worried about the reported actions of UCL in this interview with Mary Collins.

What I am much more worried about is the degree to which academics seem oblivious to the issue of academic freedom. It takes a special kind of obliviousness and subjectivity to look at the history of science and argue that academic researchers should be restricted in the scope of their opinions by their employer. For more on the sordid history of academic freedom, see the wikipedia page.

But, you know what? I don't work on academic freedom, and I'm not a lawyer, so I can't comment on nuances of employment contracts vs teaching vs publication, speech vs action, etc. All I can do is tell you why I care about free speech and academic freedom, and what my personal experiences are in this area, and try to explain my perspective.

Communism and my family

In a very real sense, my brothers and sisters and I only exist because of practical limits on free speech.

My father left the United States after receiving his PhD because he'd briefly been a member of the Communist Party. From personal conversations with him, I believe he was keenly aware of the danger of staying in the US, and knew that his academic career would have been in danger had he remained here.

In England, he met his first wife with whom he had my three oldest siblings, all of whom were born in Europe. (He met my mother when he returned to Princeton.)

Ironically, he managed to run afoul of both the US Government (by being a former member of the Communist Party and leaving their reach) and the Communist Party (from which he was evicted for asking too many questions).

I grew up on stories of him being called into British government buildings to meet with US officials who wanted him to surrender his passport (which would have prevented him from traveling); when he wouldn't surrender his passport, the US officials tried to get the Brits to take it from him. That never happened; the Brit response was to ask for a letter from the US, which of course wasn't forthcoming because all of this was unofficial persecution.

I also grew up on stories of him being wined and dined by the Stasi when he was visiting his first wife's family in Eastern Europe, in attempts to recruit him. This, together with his habit of sending theoretical nuclear physics journals to colleagues in Russia, led to a frightening-in-hindsight visit by several serious men in dark sunglasses from the FBI in the early 80s (I was about 10).

Interestingly, despite having been very politically active early on, my father was completely apolitical during my life. In the last years of his life, I got some minimal insight into this from his recounting of the Peekskill riots, but I never got the whole story.

Academic freedom doesn't protect you from being sued personally

Some 20-odd years ago (I'm feeling old today) I mirrored a spam blacklist site on my employee account at Caltech. (This was back when the Internet was new enough that such things could be maintained somewhat manually. ;) One of the people on the spam blacklist got very upset and sent some very nasty e-mails threatening everyone and everything at Caltech with lawsuits unless we removed it.

The resulting conversation escalated all the way to the provost (who I was actually doing research for at the time - see below), and I had the awkward conversation where I was told:

  • we have no problems hosting this, if you make the following modifications to make it clear this isn't Caltech's official opinion;
  • we're not going to fire you or anything like that;
  • but we won't protect you yourself from libel litigation, so good luck!

Nothing ever happened, but it made the indelible point on me that academic freedom is a thin reed to clutch - people can still bring legal action against you for what you said, even if you face no blowback from your employer.

Climate studies and modeling

I worked for a few years on climate studies with Dr. Steven Koonin, back when he was provost at Caltech (and before he took up his position at BP). My scientific career exists in part because of the work I did with him. I regard him as a mentor, colleague, and friend.

In 2014, Dr. Koonin wrote an op-ed on climate change (here) that I think makes many good points. Knowing him personally, I trust his judgement; having worked (a small bit) in this area, and having a reasonable amount of experience in modeling, I am in agreement with many of his central points.

This measured response is a good example of true scientific debate in action. We need more of this, in general. (I'm a particular fan of Dr. Koonin's suggestion on model evaluation; he's a smart scientist.)

Several people privately told me that they thought Dr. Koonin was an idiot for writing this, and others told me it was our responsibility as scientists to toe the climate change line for fear of doing further damage to the environment. I disagree with both of these groups of people, even though I believe that climate change is anthropogenic and we need to do something about it. I think Dr. Koonin made some good points that needed to be made.

Blogging and intellectual community

About 2-3 times a year, I get a request to change something in a blog post. Very rarely is it because what I've said is wrong; it's usually because it makes someone uncomfortable or unhappy. As a matter of policy, I refuse to do so (plus my blog is under version control, and I'm certainly not going to rewrite my git history :).

(I don't have any problem with posting explicit corrections when I'm wrong, obviously.)

A key point is that I don't expect to be fired for anything I say in my blog posts. Completely apart from having an awful lot of privilege (white, male, tenure, supportive family, no health problems), there's an expectation that what I say on my blog is subject to academic freedom. I've never gotten any pushback from my employer and I don't expect to, no matter how critical I am of them.

Joe Pickrell makes a very good point that intellectual community is key to academia. How can we have robust discussion and without academic freedom? (Rebecca Schuman makes an excellent related point about adjuncts, job security and academic freedom, here, with which I greatly sympathize.)

Privilege, and free speech, and academic freedom

(I'm not a lawyer, so please correct me. This is my understanding.)

Free speech is a constitutional right in the US; as such it only applies to government action. If my employer is upset with my speech, they are free to fire me; Twitter is under no obligation to allow me to tweet whatever I want; etc.

Academic freedom is, essentially, free speech commuted to academic employees: basically, universities should not fire people for something they said. While I am still individually liable for what I say under the law of the country I'm in, my employer cannot fire me without some substantial process (if at all) for what I say.

There are a lot of tricky bits in there, though.

For example, when I wrote on Twitter, "academic ideal: I should be able to hold & defend ideas w/o fear of losing my job", I got a very important response from a colleague -- White men exercising their entitlement to this ideal seems to be at odds with marginalized people gaining the same privileges.

(Please read the rest of that Twitter commentary if you're at all interested in this!)

I don't have a sophisticated response to offer; as a tenured white guy whose research isn't in this area, I am only slowly learning about this area, and a large part of that learning is being open to colleagues who tell me about their experiences (latest horrific example, of many: Julie Libarkin, with whom I work on learning evaluation). For this reason I tend to simply stay quiet and do what I can to foster a welcoming environment. I certainly don't feel qualified to say anything intelligent on the specific question of marginalization.

I do have two tentative thoughts that I keep on coming back to, though, and I'd welcome feedback.

One thought is this: we can only have conversations about sexism and privilege and systemic oppression because of free speech, and, in the university, because discussions of these controversial topics are protected by academic freedom. I have colleagues and mentees who come from "free speech challenged" countries (I'm not being more specific in order to protect them), and the stories they tell me of government and institutional oppression are horrifying. With respect to one actual real-life example that happened to the family of a colleague, I can confirm that I would say virtually anything you want me to if you took my children, put them in a jail cell, and threatened them until I acquiesced. We are fairly far from that in the US (with national security and terrorism being one horrible counterexample), and I value that tremendously. I would hate to see that weakened even in the service of efforts that I believe in passionately.

My other thought is this: limits to academic freedom and free speech are and always have been a double edged sword. This is almost the definition of a "slippery slope" situation - it's very hard to enact precise limitations on free speech that don't have seriously unintended consequences. It's pretty easy to find pairs of examples to juxtapose -- consider gun rights vs animal rights. I bet relatively few people are sympathetic to both lawsuits on any grounds other than academic freedom! But most people will be sympathetic to at least one. How else to square this but academic freedom??

So inasmuch as I have anything to say, it's this: we should be careful what we wish for, because your well-intentioned limits on free speech and academic freedom today will be used used against you tomorrow. And if you don't agree that happens, you are taking an ahistorical position.

Concluding thoughts

There's a long and righteous history of defending the most disgusting and horrifying actions based on due process. For one example, Miranda rights rest on a despicable character, Ernesto Miranda, who was later convicted of some horrible crimes. Presumably most of my readers would agree that Miranda rights are a net win for the rights of the accused, but note that it was controversial -- for example, the Supreme Court decision was 5-4. (The wikipedia page is a very good read.)

So, ultimately, I don't think there's any conflict in arguing for due process or legal protections of free speech, academic freedom, or anything else, no matter how heinous the speech being protected is. And if you disagree, then I think you're not only wrong but dangerously so.

That having been said, I'm unsympathetic to people who want me to host their obnoxious speech. I can't see any reason why I, personally, am required to pay attention to what anyone else is saying. I don't have any reason to put up with (say) sexist speech within my lab, or on my blog. Nor do I have to engage with, pay attention to, or promote, those who have opinions I find to be silly or nonsensical. (One exception here - academic norms require me to engage with those opinions that bear on my own academic research.)


p.s. Respectful comments only, abiding by the Principle of Charity; others may be deleted without notice, and commenters may be banned. My blog, my rules. Read the above if you're confused :).

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