Academic freedom has often been an issue in recent years, but almost exclusively as it concerned the professor and his job or perhaps the library and its books.
In the generally excellent fight to defend these principles against the attackers, a serious issue was largely overlooked. Immediate problems were solved, and men's jobs protected, but little precaution was taken that the same sort of rampant fear and distrust would not once again sweep the country, and that the fights might not have to be fought again.
The fault lay in ignoring the importance of academic freedom for the student. For while a surprising number of students came to the sides of their impugned professors, a disappointing number did not. This could be expected, because by and large the American college campus was one where a youth might read about freedoms and liberties, but could not practice them too much. Speakers were indiscriminately banned, and college papers sometimes suppressed; despite loud outcries from the students involved, the speakers usually stayed banned and the newspapers stayed suppressed, at least until a purification had been effected.
Just recently a document has come forth insisting that academic freedom applies to the student, and that he must learn democracy through practice. It is a twelve-page pamphlet--Academic Freedom and Civil Liberties of Students--published by the American Civil Liberties Union. While it does not document cases, it affords a clear and generally consistent statement of principles for student rights at colleges, and as an after-thought, secondary schools.
The ACLU statement is strongest on general principles, for some of its specific statements and concepts read as though they were dreamed up in the group's New York office by men who thought it was a good idea to say something about academic freedom and the student, regardless of whether or not their experience particularly qualified them for such authorship.
The pamphlet's main argument is that young people cannot learn and grow into adults who respect democracy if they are barred from exercising it themselves. It attacks "the increasing exercise of a stifling paternalism by college authorities and governing boards over students, their organizational and other activities."
Such control, it is argued, attempts the impossibility of trying to protect the student from the "hazards of freedom" and still train him in "making intelligent choices between policies."
The meat of the ACLU's work concerns various aspects of campus life, or, as they put it, "Students as Campus Citizens."
Five main categories are considered in the report, and a careful explication of the position taken on each might be in order.
1) Student Government. The report recommends such, noting that while they are "sometimes defective," they provide "a first training in political expression."
The only points the report makes concerning student governments are that they should be elected by the entire student body, not just by clubs or organizations, and that their membership should not be subject to administrative control except through academic eligibility requirements.
The fault here is that the essential question is not met--what shall a Student Government control? This is an issue central to the existence of student government, for practice in democracy assumes a high degree of artificiality if the subject matter is trivial.
To find an answer it is necessary to go to the section on student discipline, where it is urged that student governments should consider any problems that concern students, including those of curriculum. While the Junior Prom-cheering at games type of Council subject may be more common, the report obviously favors reaching into subjects like educational policy, for at still another place it urges "Students should be offered opportunity to participate in the total work of the educational institution."
2) As far as clubs and student organizations are concerned, the report advocates that institutions allow them to form for any lawful purposes, and observes that political groups should not need to affiliate with national organizations, although this should not bar them either. It also argues that all such organizations should get equal use of meeting rooms.
The major point made on this subject is that administrations have no right to demand membership lists of organizations, although they may reasonably expect lists of officers. The ACLU does not argue its case on this point, although the recommendation is understood to be based upon fears of misuse of such lists, particularly some years after the student has left college.
Doubtless the ACLU has cases to support this thesis, but college administrators may also assert that they have a duty to know, to some extent at least, how students are spending their time and which students are taking a greater interest in extra-curricular activities. Here the argument must lie, because the report's point of view is only stated, not thoroughly explained.
3) A more decisive point of view is expressed on the subject of student forums and guest speakers. While not demanding complete freedom for students in choosing their own speakers, as is enjoyed at the University, the ACLU does insist that any criteria for permitting speakers and groups to meet on campus be set forth in advance and rigidly maintained, so that banning of a speaker would not result from an immediate hysterical community reaction.
On this subject, the report concludes, "the extent of the freedom that students have to assemble, to select speakers, to discuss controversial topics, even to harry the administration by criticism whether sagacious or puerile, is more likely to be a measure of the maturity of the educational institution and the community that it serves, than a determination of the maturity or immaturity of the student body."
4) Undergraduate newspapers are discussed with a conclusion that controlled press implies an institution's responsibility for whatever immaturity or irresponsibility appears in the paper. The report also suggests that control and censorship limit the educational value of having such a paper at all.
While full freedom of the student press is not demanded for all kinds of papers in all kinds of colleges, the report says "the principle freedom of the student press in institutions of higher learning is the only policy consistent with the traditional American devotion to civil liberties."
5) The ACLU report urges that student discipline be enforced by a student-faculty committee which would also establish the regulations of conduct which it will subsequently uphold. Once again, the report demands specific and clearly formulated rules, inveighing against "such general criteria as 'conduct unbecoming a student' or 'against the best interests of an institution' which allow for wide latitude of interpretation and hence confusion."
The report also urges that secondary school administrators allow more freedom in the conduct of extra-curricular activities.
The greatest value of the report is that it raises this significant issue and points out that academic freedom must exist for student as well as profesor. Its statements of principle are telling. But this brief statement fails to document, and it fails to consider certain important aspects of the whole question of student life.
Young people come to college and universities primarily as students, not primarily as student-council members. Student discipline officials, for another objection, often function with less reason and tolerance than administration-faculty members in the same positions.
The greatest failing is the lack of documentation, but that is understood to be proceeding now through case studies. But on the whole this is a valuable document, for while it sometimes may suggest a student so busy governing himself and asking for democratic procedure that he does nothing else, it has suggested that at least he has a right to this course if he wishes to pursue it. While imperfect, this statement by the Academic Freedom Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union represents an important step