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Blurred Lines: Academic Freedom in the Age of Social Media

The dynamic among freedoms enjoyed by professors as scholars, educators, and citizens has been in tension for well over a century, leading the academic community to refine these boundaries in times of uncertainty. Under the principle of academic freedom, professors can conduct research, even in areas fraught with controversy, manage their classrooms according to their judgement, participate in college governance, and express themselves as private citizens. The meaning of academic freedom for faculty is sometimes contested in campus settings when scholarship, classroom conduct, and governance leads to controversy.

But perhaps even more frequent are debates about the meaning of academic freedom outside the university gates. Though they are members of an institution, professors are also citizens with First Amendment rights. Comments, publications, or actions carried out by professors external to their positions with their universities has led to controversy in recent years, although the phenomenon is nothing new.

Is it acceptable for faculty to take off their professorial caps and speak their mind freely, like any other citizen, or must faculty exercise unremitting self-restraint and decorum in the content and tone of extramural statements? Likewise, what is the role, if any, of the university in responding to faculty extramural expression?

The rise of online expression has increased uncertainty about the bounds of academic freedom. Over the past century, the rules and mores governing academic institutions have been reshaped several times. These episodes provide context for how campus leaders should engage with our current upheaval.

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A Brief History of Contested Speech in Higher Ed

Events in the early 20th century helped set the stage for formal statements on extramural expression.

Ross Affair (1900)

Edward Alsworth Ross was fired from his position at Stanford University after making remarks contrary to the financial interests of university co-founder Jane Stanford. Mrs. Stanford was heavily invested in the railroad industry, of which Ross was openly critical, saying on one occasion, “A railroad deal is a railroad steal.” He was subsequently dismissed from his faculty post and the incident ignited a fiery debate over academic freedom and university control over ideological expression.

Bassett Affair (1903)

Not long after Ross left Stanford, John Spencer Bassett was scrutinized at Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina—now Duke University. In 1903, he published an article challenging popular views in the South about race relations. He praised notable African-Americans like Booker T. Washington, whom he described as “the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years.” His publication led to an outraged op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer and many demanded his termination. Though its vote was not unanimous, the board of trustees decisively rejected Bassett’s resignation, citing academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded, prompted in large part by extramural utterance cases like those of Ross and Bassett. The AAUP outlined its views on free expression in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The document lays out the organization’s beliefs about the role of a faculty member in society: “In their extramural utterances, it is obvious that academic teachers are under a peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression,” but within these constraints, “it is not… desirable that scholars should be debarred from giving expression to their judgments upon controversial questions.” These guiding views have become fundamental to ideas around faculty free expression at colleges and universities.

The 1915 document has been reevaluated several times, most notably in 1940 when the AAUP issued a new statement in conjunction with the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities). With regard to extramural speech, the statement reiterates the organization’s endorsement of faculty freedom to speak their own minds but also of the importance of practicing restraint:

As scholars and educational officers, [faculty] should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

The AAUP’s position on faculty extramural expression indicates that professors have a distinctive public role. As analyzed by scholar and academic freedom commentator Stanley Fish, the AAUP envisages the role of faculty as not only scholars and teachers but public servants with a responsibility to model critical thinking, civil and informed debate, and responsible civic conduct. The AAUP mandates that faculty maintain their integrity as scholars and public servants by remaining mindful of their academic responsibilities even when speaking in the public square.

Contemporary Cases of Faculty Extramural Expression

Examples abound of faculty creating controversy with online posts, fora, and off-campus activities.

Extramural Speech: Personal Social Media

Former Yale faculty member and forensic psychiatrist Brandy Lee was terminated in January 2020 after her tweets stating that “just about all” supporters of former President Donald Trump suffered from a “shared psychosis.” She filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in March 2021, alleging that her online comments motivated her firing.

Randa Jarrar, an associate English professor at California State University at Fresno, took to her personal social media after the death of Barbara Bush in April 2018 to call the former first lady an “amazing racist” who “raised a war criminal.” In response, many Twitter users called for Jarrar’s removal and she was placed under review by the university. President Joseph Castro said that Jarrar’s tenured status did not give her “blanket permission to say and do what [she] wished.”

Extramural Speech: Online Fora

Cornell University law professor William Jacobson gained attention in June 2020 for his blog posts criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite widespread disapproval by fellow faculty members, Jacobson faced no formal repercussions for his extramural writings. The Cornell Law School dean responded to Jacobson’s posts by saying that “to take disciplinary action against him for the views he has expressed would fatally pit our values against one another in ways that would corrode our ability to operate as an academic institution.”

Betsy Schoeller, a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in July 2020 made a comment in a private Facebook group about sexual harassment being “the price of admission” for women into the U.S. military. A petition with over 15,000 signatures called for Schoeller’s termination. UWM released a statement disavowing Schoeller’s beliefs but making clear that she would not be fired because of the institution’s commitment to free speech rights.

Extramural Activities

Skidmore College art professor David Peterson was condemned by student activists for observing a Blue Lives Matter rally in July 2020 out of “civic interest and curiosity.” A photo of Peterson’s attendance circulated amongst students, who called for his “immediate dismissal” and a boycott of his classes. As a result, two of Peterson’s classes had only a few enrollees and one had none at all.

In February 2021, Joshua Hochschild, a philosophy professor at Mount St. Mary’s University, came under fire for attending the protest on the mall in Washington, D.C., the previous month. A petition with over 1,700 signatures from students and faculty called for Hochschild’s resignation. A statement from St. Mary’s provost said, “Academic freedom gives both faculty and students the right to express their view respectfully without fear of sanction. …we have a vested right in protecting the right to speak as private citizens.”

How Faculty Extramural Expression Is Viewed Today

At least three factors are heightening the complexity of extramural controversies: a lack of consensus on what constitutes faculty extramural behavior, the blurred differentiation of personal and professional time on social media, and the visibility of universities’ responses.

The AAUP consensus that professors should exercise restraint and decorum even when speaking in the public square is eroding. This long-held consensus on faculty behavior has been disrupted by the development of social media and online fora, where norms of appropriate speech are not settled. Randa Jarrar’s words on the late Mrs. Bush, for example, could hardly be classified as refraining from “intemperate or sensational modes of expression.”

There is now a divergence from this consensus, with some defending speech like Jarrar’s as protected by academic freedom under the First Amendment. If the bounds of academic freedom are defined by the First Amendment, this kind of speech is acceptable. This is especially so if the mission of academia and the purpose of academic freedom is to critique and reform society (which is another, more recent view of academic freedom analyzed by Stanley Fish).

The use of online platforms and social media blurs the differentiation between personal and professional time. Posts may be viewed at any time. Any attendance of a past event or opinion expressed is logged permanently. This makes it difficult for the viewer—say a student, administrator, state legislator, or college donor—to see a post from a faculty member and determine either the context or whether this the post in question was personal expression or expression made as a member of an academic institution.

The visibility of institutional response is also changing. The 24/7 news cycle intensifies pressure on administrators to respond quickly and to follow the lead of peer institutions. As demonstrated by all six cases above, it does not take much for there to be calls for termination. If such calls are now the norm, it is incumbent on colleges and universities to have a response strategy in place should a controversy suddenly arise.

Contemporary examples of faculty extramural expression reveal the ad hoc nature of how they’re often addressed. Today, activities that would not normally be noticed are permanently visible online. Institutions should debate whether there are any limits on faculty extramural expression or if professors have “blanket protection to say and do what they wish.”

If there are constraints, for the sake of transparency, it should be clear what they are and how they can be justified. Without clear guidelines from universities for professors’ conduct in the age of social media, academic freedom and extramural expression are chilled, and faculty worry that their institution will not stand behind their freedom to engage in controversial extramural expression.

This issue needs to be addressed by universities and a new consensus must be developed to ensure that professors, students, and their institutions have a common understanding of the rules. Universities would benefit by having a strategy in place before the next extramural expression controversy arises. Creating this policy roadmap is essential to protecting and upholding academic freedom.

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