Let’s Talk about Academic Freedom

In a recent Harvard Crimson article, Harvard student Sandra Korn endorses the abridgment of academic freedom in order to prevent the publication of research promoting or justifying oppression. Her view is not particularly remarkable, and it certainly isn’t novel, but it is worth correcting nonetheless.

The constitutional case for academic freedom is clear. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) the Supreme Court accepted Justice Frankfurter’s rationale in Wieman v. Updegraff that “unwarranted inhibition [of academic freedom]…has an unmistakable tendency to chill that free play of the spirit which all teachers ought to cultivate and practice…Teachers must…be exemplars of open-mindedness and free inquiry. They must have the freedom of responsible inquiry, by thought and action, into the meaning of social and economic ideas, into the checkered history of social and economic dogma.” Later, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), the Court also upheld academic freedom and freedom of association in light of the First Amendment.

Both Sweezy and Keyishian were explicit constitutional prohibitions on McCarthy-esque purges, and invoked the phrase “academic freedom” in particular. Because Korn’s vision of “academic justice” requires censorship of professors’ publications on the basis of their political views, it is analogous to McCarthy’s witch-hunt of socialists. One can assume then that Korn does not find the constitutional argument for academic freedom compelling. So, in the interest of attempting to persuade Korn to revise her beliefs on the subject, I’ll articulate a philosophical argument for strict First Amendment protection of academic freedom.

Korn argues that “academic justice” requires censoring academic publications in order to ensure they aren’t oppressive. This is sort-of intuitive at a very superficial level – after all, oppression is bad, and we should prevent bad things when possible. Furthermore, Korn contends that “no one ever has ‘full freedom’ in research and publication…what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities.” But this semblance of a syllogism and unapologetic naturalistic fallacy does not bear out. Korn ought to take a philosophy class.

Korn’s chief example of an oppressive academic publication is Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein’s 1971 article “I.Q.,” which makes the claim (which would later be reiterated in Herrnstein’s famous work The Bell Curve), that intelligence is primarily hereditary and varies by race. According to Korn, Herrnstein concludes in “I.Q.” that “social programs intended to establish a more egalitarian society were futile.”

Even granting her this caricature of Herrnstein’s thesis, Korn’s strategy of promoting “academic justice” by ensuring that research that promotes or justifies oppression isn’t published is highly problematic. Any attempt to censor politically incorrect views creates problems for Korn’s argument because any method for distinguishing between “sufficiently oppressive” and “trivially oppressive” speech is ultimately arbitrary.

How will one go about delineating between views that are sufficiently oppressive to be censored, and views that, while marginally oppressive, don’t cross whatever arbitrary “oppressiveness threshold” one constructs? For instance, is this article the sort of thing that ought to be censored? I am, after all, openly endorsing the publication of exactly the kinds of oppressive academic works Korn opposes. While certain kinds of academic speech, for instance Holocaust-denial, would clearly fall on the “oppressive” end of Korn’s spectrum, few such cases are so straightforward.

The erection of a litmus test for acceptable ideology is a messy, oppressive endeavor. Remember, for instance, McCarthy-era Red-baiting. The question: “Who must agree that an academic work is oppressive in order for it to be justly censored?” is unanswerable, and itself suspect. A liberal commitment to inclusion of conflicting voices renders Korn’s principle untenable in theory and in practice.

That being said, Korn has captured the germ of an important issue. Some academic works, like Ward Churchill’s essay comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” clearly perpetuate unjust views. However, I contend that, instead of censoring these publications, one must counter oppressive views through reasoned debate. Academic discourse over controversial publications is not only an effective means to combat oppressive viewpoints, but, more important, the only way to avoid well-intentioned, but morally bankrupt, censorship of the Joseph McCarthy variety.

Oppressive viewpoints are definitionally false viewpoints, so the task of undermining an academic’s arguments for an unjustified belief should, generally, be an easy one. The primary feature of reasoned discourse is that it tends to get at the truth, including those truths that undermine the arguments in offensive academic publications. Herrnstein’s work on IQ is a case in point. In an article summarizing statistical findings post-Bell Curve, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp notes that sociological research on the IQ debate has concluded that, while inherited genetic makeup is the largest determining factor on intelligence, socioeconomic factors and access to quality education also play a significant role. Taken together, research on this nature/nurture debate supports the conclusion that social justice policies like educational reform still have a significant role to play in levelling the playing field for the least well-off.

The philosophical problem of identifying which academic publications are, according to Korn’s argument, “unjust,” and the practical problem of assembling commissions to evaluate whether a particular publication meets whatever standards of injustice Korn might try to outline are convincing reasons to opt for an inviolable right to academic freedom. Though, clearly, some publications seem to perpetuate just views and others unjust views, most academic works inhabit an uncertain gray area. Consequently, rulings on the “justice” of a particular academic work are highly susceptible not only to human error, but to the broader possibility that our current conception of “academic justice” is, as Joseph McCarthy’s was, just plain wrong. In light of these human failings, and understanding the history of academic censorship in this country, we would do well to be wary of the notion of censorship itself.

Therefore, the appropriate response to academic works that disseminate unjust viewpoints is not the crude strategy of moral browbeating embodied in censorship, but an exposition of reasons an unjust view is unjustified. The right strategy in combating oppression is not to silence the opposition, but to engage in debate and invalidate oppressive viewpoints with factual evidence. One must remind the public not only that academics who endorse oppressive views are wrong, but also why those academics are wrong. While the risk that censorship may be abused is ever-present, engaging in moral argument to refute an offensive academic publication is, ethically speaking, risk-free.

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