National Assoc. of Scholars defends free expression after campus protest outbreak

The National Association of Scholars has broken its silence on the outbreak of campus protests that began last fall, releasing a detailed report examining the consequences for intellectual and academic freedom.

The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom,” NAS President Peter Wood explains in an introductory statement, is intended to address the confusion that recent protests have generated regarding the nature of intellectual and academic freedom, with a second document in the works that will address the specific applicability of those principles to a liberal arts education.

The preliminary report begins by summarizing three statements affirming intellectual freedom: the 1915 Declaration of Principles by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the 1974 Woodward Report from Yale University, and the 2015 Stone Report, also known as the “Chicago Statement,” from the University of Chicago.

The Declaration of Principles focuses mainly on the academic freedom of faculty, declaring their right to an environment of open critique and criticism, but also warning them against attempting to indoctrinate students with “the teacher’s own opinions.”

The Yale Woodward Report addresses the freedoms of outside speakers invited by a university, condemning six previous instances in which a speaker had been dis-invited or prevented from speaking because of protests.

“The content of the speech, even parts deemed defamatory or insulting, [does not] entitle any member of the audience to engage in disruption,” states a portion of the report excerpted by the NAS. “While untruthful and defamatory speech may give rise to civil liability it is neither a justification nor an excuse for disruption, and it may not be considered in any subsequent proceeding against offenders as a mitigating factor.”

Moreover, the Woodward committee also advised against dis-inviting speakers, noting that “once an invitation is accepted and the event is publicly announced, there are high risks involved if a University official—especially the President—attempts by public or private persuasion to have the invitation rescinded.”

The most recent document, the Stone Report, reiterates the Yale statement’s conclusions regarding outside speakers but also addresses the contemporary debate over the correct balance between free expression and civility. The statement has not only been endorsed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) but has already been adopted by several other major universities, including Princeton and Purdue.

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“Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect,” the Chicago Statement asserts, “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

The NAS report notes that the applicability of academic freedom is complicated in cases such as religiously-affiliated institutions, where devotion to spiritual dogmas occasionally comes in conflict with adherence to academic freedom, and that more recently, such “issues of doctrine and creed” have arisen in the context of “popular movements on campus demanding ‘safe spaces,’ ‘trigger warnings,’ ‘academic justice,’ and—more generally—the prioritizing of ‘social justice’ over intellectual freedom.”

Together, “these demands amount to a new creedal assault on the concepts of both academic freedom and intellectual freedom,” the report claims without equivocation.

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Whereas faith-based colleges and universities at least “explicitly frame their mission as rooted in a creedal orthodoxy,” the report explains, public institutions of higher learning “purport to be secular, open to all views and persuasions, and committed to intellectual freedom in the broadest sense,” and therefore “compromise their stated purposes when they, in effect, embrace a ‘social justice’ agenda that is, in every practical way, a creed.”

Not only do such commitments conflict with the principles of free expression, the NAS adds, they actually contradict them, “by moving all the way to declaring that free expression is not a good at all, but a social evil that ought to be suppressed.”

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Although the academic freedom of students has been lightly treated in most of the seminal documents on the matter, the NAS applauds organizations like FIRE for taking up the cause in recent years.

“For students, academic freedom is a combination of freedom from indoctrination and freedom to engage in disciplined inquiry, which includes the freedom to read, hear, and consider views that differ from those of their instructors,” the report states. “Students are vulnerable to pressures that differ in important ways from the pressures experienced by faculty members,” not only in terms of grading but also with regard to the professor’s choice of which information to present and how to frame it.

The meaning of academic freedom for students varies according to context, the NAS says, but “can be impinged upon by other students who party too loudly or too often; who mount disruptive protests in the library or the classroom; or who hijack class discussions to focus on some favored issue or perspective to the detriment of more balanced coverage of a topic,” as well as by administrators who seek to restrict the manner and content of debate on campus.

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Institutions also face restrictions on academic freedom, typically in the form of edicts from the federal government with which they must comply in order to remain eligible for student loan subsidies, but also from “restricted” donations and membership in organizations like the NCAA.

“Perhaps the greatest threat to institutional academic freedom has arisen from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which issued a series of ‘Dear Colleague’ letters from 2011 to 2015” that dramatically expanded the definition of “discrimination” to include sexual assault, the NAS claims, explaining that unlike most other government regulations, these cannot be avoided by foregoing federal subsidies.

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Intellectual freedom, however, is not the only foundational principle of higher education, according to the NAS, but rather is dependent on a number of other principles being simultaneously upheld, starting with intellectual diversity.

“The word ‘diversity’ today is typically deployed as a euphemism for racial and ethnic preferences,” the report says, but “in higher education, it refers to lower admissions standards applied to black, Hispanic, and Native American students, and lower hiring standards applied to faculty members from these groups.”

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Although the Supreme Court has upheld “diversity” as a justification for racial preferences, the NAS argues that diversity of race is “a poor proxy” for viewpoint diversity, and an even less satisfactory replacement for the diversity of ideas, which should be the true goal of higher education.

Also at issue is the principle of civility, which the report describes as a necessary protection for intellectual freedom, albeit one that is frequently challenging to adhere to.

“We have seen in the last few years numerous instances of college officials caught flatfooted by activists who are willing to disregard both the spirit of civility and the basic rules of behavior,” the report points out, adding that activists see it as a sign of weakness when administrators refuse to abandon their own civility. “For intellectual freedom to exist with a community, civility must be maintained by authority if and when necessary.”

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“We are concerned over the recent emergence of versions of academic freedom that conflate it with intellectual freedom—and sometimes conflate both academic and intellectual freedom with First Amendment freedoms,” the NAS report concludes, opining that “this blurring of key distinctions puts all three at risk.”

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