Academic freedom: Scholarly concept sparks lively mainstream debate

Academic freedom is a source of lively debate right now among some at Kansas University, where the cases of two faculty members have propelled the term out of academia and into mainstream headlines. And KU is not the only school with academic freedom disputes making the news.

There’s “unease” among faculty on the KU campus now that the Kansas Board of Regents social media policy has been approved but not yet applied to anyone, which would reveal the extent of its restrictiveness, said University Senate President Jonathan Mayhew, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

“There is a sense that academic freedom is under threat,” Mayhew said. “People feel that they don’t really know … what the limits are now.”

Likewise, a pending lawsuit by a School of Business lecturer who does not want KU to release his emails to students requesting them under the Kansas Open Records Act has faculty wondering exactly where the academic freedom balance tips.

“As a faculty member I don’t love the idea that every email I write might be subject to public disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act,” said Richard Levy, J.B. Smith Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law. “But at the same time I also, as a lawyer, recognize that when you use your employer’s email you have no claim to privacy in those emails.”

KU journalism professor David Guth.

Art Hall, KU School of Business

In 2013, KU journalism associate professor David Guth was put on leave for an anti-NRA tweet after a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The situation inflamed gun-rights supporters, outraged some politicians and prompted the Regents to enact a statewide policy allowing universities to fire faculty members who post messages on social media that are “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”

Currently, the University Senate is working to finalize a procedure for the university to adopt that would outline the fact-finding and possible disciplinary process for a faculty member accused of violating the policy.

In Douglas County District Court, a judge will decide whether to release lecturer Art Hall’s correspondence. Hall is founding executive director of KU’s Center for Applied Economics and former chief economist for the Public Sector Group of Koch Industries Inc.

The request is a misuse of open-records law “that seems to be spreading nationwide,” Hall said in a guest column in the Journal-World. “There is an emerging body of legal precedent that allows researchers the latitude they require to correspond broadly with experts with diverse viewpoints without fearing their thoughts will be misconstrued, published and used against them in order to silence them.”


KU isn’t the only university getting attention right now over academic freedom disputes.

The American Association of University Professors, commonly regarded as the definer and keeper of academic freedom, is involved in multiple cases.

Anita Levy, associate secretary of the association’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, said one is between the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Steven Salaita. When the university offered Salaita a teaching job he quit his job as a professor at Virginia Tech and moved his family, but the university rescinded the offer after Salaita posted a series of inflammatory tweets about Israel over the summer. Salaita sued in federal court to force the university to follow through on his hire and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation.

Levy said the AAUP considers tweets like Salaita’s “extramural utterance” and questions whether his academic freedom was violated.

At the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the AAUP is looking into an ongoing dispute involving doctors — who also are faculty members and researchers — seeking tenure, Levy said. The hospital doesn’t grant professors indefinite tenure, a practice the AAUP considers essential to academic freedom because it helps ensure unbiased research and patient treatment.

“There’s a huge amount of corporate funding that goes into these places,” Levy said. “If these faculty members don’t have tenure and security in their positions, they might be liable to undue pressure.”

Other cases AAUP has addressed in recent years include sweeping open records requests for emails from faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and three Michigan schools, influence of conservative multimillionaire Art Pope on faculty at University of North Carolina, and others.


Academic freedom, loosely defined, is the conceptual equivalent of freedom of speech in the academic environment.

But the exact term isn’t part of Kansas state law or the Constitution.

“As one learns if one takes a historical view, academic freedom is not absolute and has undergone various assaults and reinterpretations over time,” said Susan Twombly, professor and chair of educational leadership and policy studies at KU. “The line between First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom often blur.” 

Basically, the AAUP’s Levy said, academic freedom means faculty — even with unpopular viewpoints — should be allowed to operate without pressure from outside groups, government or even the university itself. But academic freedom isn’t carte blanche to do or say anything one wants.

The AAUP’s statement on it specifically addresses three categories, Levy said:

• Freedom to pursue research unmolested by outside forces. Disciplinary knowledge should take precedent, and quality can be backed up by peer reviews such as those required for publication in many academic journals.

• Freedom to teach one’s discipline as one sees fit, but without introducing controversial material unrelated to the subject.

• Freedom to speak out and write on matters of legitimate concern, taking care to identify they’re speaking as individuals and not their respective universities.

In practice, said KU law professor and media law specialist Mike Kautsch, “it can be really hard to come to a firm judgment” about what is and what isn’t protected under academic freedom.

That’s where due process — hopefully — comes to the rescue, Kautsch and Levy say.

In the case of the Kansas social media policy, for example, a faculty member accused of violating it will have the opportunity for a panel including their peers to weigh in, under the proposed KU procedural guidelines.

And in other cases, such as that of Hall’s emails, the court may ultimately pick through them and all their nuances.

“I’m a strong advocate of open records,” Kautsch said. “But the academic freedom question, you can’t deny it’s important. It’s … really got to be carefully scrutinized.”