Volume 16 • Issue 2
Southwestern @ Georgetown
“Those of us who work in academia, especially those who describe themselves as scholars, should recognize that academic freedom carries with it the added responsibility of honest and open inquiry.”

Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

What is the relationship between freedom of speech and academic freedom? Recent statements by university professors and certain actions on college campuses have once again caused many of us to ponder this question.

Let me begin by saying that I am deeply committed to both of these ideas. Moreover, I firmly believe it is worth risking one’s position as a college or university president to uphold and to defend the concept of academic freedom. Yet, while some defend academic freedom and the freedom of speech as though they were interchangeable, I do not.

Freedom of speech is a right shared by all citizens of the United States and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. It ensures citizens may say whatever they please, whenever they please and wherever they please. This is a right extended to individuals as well as groups of citizens.

Freedom of speech does not, however, infer a responsibility of opening one’s statements and arguments to reasonable inquiry and debate.

As often as not, persons exercising their right to free speech do so at the top of their lungs and in as one-sided a manner as possible. They make speeches, carry signs, shout through bullhorns and find all manner of ways to make their point while, at the same time, actively discouraging or ignoring viewpoints contrary to their own. This is free speech, with all its trials and trappings, and it is an unquestionable necessity for our society to remain truly free and democratic. The free exercise of speech is perhaps our greatest defense against tyranny, and, for this reason if no other, should be defended at all times and at all costs.

But academic freedom should not be confused with the freedom of speech.

Much like the freedom of speech, academic freedom serves to protect scholars and researchers from the oppression of censorship. It exists to assure scholars that they need not fear losing their jobs because individuals inside or outside the academy disagree or even condemn the work they do. Whether writing, conducting studies and experiments or performing research, this freedom protects scholars from detractors who would force them to abandon their academic endeavors because, for whatever reason, they deem it unpalatable.

Yet, those of us who work in academia, especially those who describe themselves as scholars, should recognize that academic freedom carries with it the added responsibility of honest and open inquiry. It entails accepting challenges to one’s positions and working seriously to address them thoughtfully and genuinely.

Moreover, academic freedom flourishes only when members of the academy recognize that this privilege should be used, not for self-expression alone, but also for the edification of fellow scholars as well as the larger community. Stated plainly, expressions privileged and protected by academic freedom carry the responsibility and, in my opinion, the moral obligation to respect and enhance a community of inquiry.

Our colleges and universities must be about the business of scholarly debate, earnest discussion and intellectual inquiry. We can practice free speech in all its forms on our campuses, including walking a picket line, holding a sit-in and issuing public statements denouncing perceived wrongs and injustices. While these are valid forms of protest and, assuredly, protected by the freedom of speech, are they exercises we should consider protected by academic freedom? Some might say yes, but I believe we should not. The privilege of enjoying academic freedom must carry with it the responsibility to enhance a community of inquiry where opposing viewpoints are invited, heard and valued. As cherished and vital as it is, freedom of speech carries no such burden.

Jake B. Schrum ’68
President, Southwestern University