Scholar addresses free speech vs academic freedom on campus

Scholar+addresses+free+speech+vs+academic+freedom+on+campus

Jackie Jahfetson

On Jan. 3, 2017, more than 100 faculty members from the University of California-Berkeley sent a letter to their chancellor demanding that a speech by alt-right, controversial writer Milo Yiannopoulos be canceled. The planned event erupted many violent protests, causing $100,000 in damage after the speech was canceled. The request came as an extraordinary request and a blow to free speech.

But speech, controversial or not, is protected under the First Amendment. And faculty members should not interfere with that fundamental right, said Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

“Insult and vulgar language speech can not be punished, let alone restrained,” Nelson said.

A group of about 25 students, faculty and community members gathered in Reynolds Recital Hall at 7 p.m. April 19 to hear the labor activist and scholar speak about “Academic Freedom in Times of Crisis: The Future of Collective Bargaining, Free Speech on Campus and Prospects for Peace in the Middle East.” Nelson focused on the importance of academic freedom and how campuses should not prohibit acts or demonstrations of free speech.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, academic freedom is the freedom to teach or to learn without interference (as by government officials), but academic freedom and free speech are not equal to the same meaning and there is no “hierarchy” involved, Nelson said.

“Academic freedom does not trump the rights of freedom of speech, religion or the right to trial by jury. It’s not superior,”
Nelson said.

Nelson’s speech closed out this semester’s “Reclaiming Academic Freedom and Free Speech on Campus” event series, sponsored by the Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom (CAIF), College Democrats, College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty. Nelson presented his argument for why the First Amendment is important, especially inside the classroom.

Academic freedom is not a “universal requirement” and the aspect of “civility” is not meant to be imposed on everyone, Nelson said, adding that campuses are “not concentration camps.”

When universities like Berkeley cancel speeches, academic freedom is limited and if the trend continues to grow as it has shown in the past decade, the result will not be good, he said. Though hate speech can be controversial, people have the right to free speech regardless of their personal ideologies or beliefs, he added.

Nelson pointed out that even when unfavored speakers are set to give a speech, such as May commencement speaker Gov. Rick Snyder, audience members should be allowed to protest in the way they choose. Whether it’s a one-minute demonstration right before the speaker takes the podium or responding with pure silence, protesting is another right to academic freedom, he added.

“Understanding academic freedom is not incorporated in faculty DNA. It has to be learned,” Nelson said, adding, “There’s educational value to experiencing monsters in the flesh. [When] seeing them speak, you learn from that.”

For senior biology major Lucy Meyer-Rasmussen, Nelson’s speech on his ambitions to uphold academic freedom rights was inspiring to hear. Nelson used real-life examples to illustrate his ideas, and he was “inclusive” in explaining his viewpoints, Meyer-Rasmussen said.

“Without free speech and academic freedom, we run the risk of forfeiting freedom in general,” she said. “If free speech is curtailed, we’re not able to express when we’re unsatisfied. Free speech is an important part of our representation.”