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Academic Freedom and Free Speech Are Distinct. Both Matter.

By Sruthi Lekha Muluk
By Danielle Allen, Contributing Opinion Writer
Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation.

All year we’ve bandied about phrases like “civil discourse,” “open inquiry,” “academic freedom,” and “free speech.” It’s time to clarify them, and what living by them requires.

“Civil discourse” and “open inquiry” name an aspiration to discourse where disagreements — even fierce ones — can spark mutual learning because we engage with each other earnestly and respectfully. They promise a world where good-faith arguments, directed toward truth-seeking, bound by standards of evidence and logic, and inclusive of all perspectives, are welcome — even when they run counter to a majority point of view.

If “civil discourse” and “open inquiry” are the “what” of good discourse on campus, “academic freedom” and “free speech” are the “how.” Often used interchangeably, both phrases name specific policy regimes governing types of speech, but there is a critical difference between them.

Academic freedom is a creature of colleges and universities and specifically protects the right to make arguments in academic contexts, subject to review of one’s work according to scholarly standards.

Free speech rights, in contrast, name a protection against governmental interference restricting speech in the public sphere. In the U.S., they are broadly defined by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The first set of protocols is organizational — The policies of universities; the second set is legal — governmental policy.

Academic spaces — including classrooms, labs, seminars, and public events sponsored by academic units — should resemble a courtroom. To achieve a verdict — Latin for “speaking the truth” — trials require witnesses for both sides.

So too in the academy. We should always want to hear the other side’s best arguments. This requires intellectual diversity — of methods, data sources, and normative frameworks, as well as viewpoints.

The need for multiple viewpoints is why academic freedom goes hand in hand with inclusion and belonging: Protecting and supporting the participation of people with diverse identities or divergent ideologies is necessary for robust academic inquiry.

But diversity of perspective doesn’t mean “anything goes.”

When a journal article is submitted without appropriate pursuit of the truth, the submission may be rejected or receive a “revise and resubmit” notice, an invitation to the author to try again. Speaker panels, too, can be judged to be ill-constructed and receive notice that further work is needed before they see the light of day.

These are not cases of cancellation or sanctioning — they reflect a legitimate evaluation of the contribution’s caliber with regard to truth-seeking.

Similarly, policies against classroom disruption, which protect the academic freedom required to sustain inquiry, do not violate free speech rights, because the classroom is not where free speech rights apply. Instead, policies against disruption protect the right of people to make the best argument they can, from whatever their point of view may be, in pursuit of the truth.

Yet free speech, including the right to protest, also matters on campus. How, why, and where should protests receive protection here?

At a public university, free speech rights follow directly from First Amendment rights. The state sponsorship of universities like U.C. Berkeley or UMass-Boston makes university leaders state representatives with formal legal obligations to respect free speech.

But at a private university, free speech rights are a privilege granted by the university in a public-spirited effort to contribute additional public spaces to those otherwise available for political debate — street corners, parks, some coffee shops, the Internet, and so on.

Though Harvard was founded by officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and technically continues to be legally accountable to the state legislature, Harvard is nonetheless considered a private university. As such, it is out of a public-spirited orientation that our University treats parts of the campus as the public sphere, where expression is broadly more protected than under the more constrained norms of academic freedom.

Speaking loosely, free speech rights apply in spaces and to events that are both extracurricular and public. These are, of course, fuzzy categories on a campus, hence our confusion.

For example: At the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute of Politics clearly functions as a public forum, so protests against its speakers that adhere to the “time, place, and manner” restrictions on free speech on our campus can be expected and must be respected there.

Other public speaker events also fall into this category, as does speech that takes place in our outdoor public space. But what about key campus rituals — from Commencement, or Match Day in the medical school, or weekly Community Teas at the Divinity School?

To address these edge cases, we rely on the following principle: Wherever spaces and events are integral to academic work and experience, they should be off-limits to disruption.

But perhaps this rules out too much? With our harsh winters, for instance, perhaps we need indoor spaces that can serve as public forums, with sensible restrictions?

Such questions deserve our more direct attention. Maybe we need a campus map that identifies places and hours where free speech rights, rather than the protocols of academic freedom, apply.

Still, even under free speech norms, it’s not the case that anything goes. The fifth value in the University’s values statement assigns us “responsibility for the bonds and bridges that enable all to grow with and learn from one another.” As an ethical matter, this value should govern how we choose to express our political views.

Even when we passionately pursue a political cause, using public spaces at Harvard to do so, including Harvard-linked online fora, we do that as a member of this campus community, in compact and covenant with everyone else here.

We cannot forget: Our use of these spaces is a privilege. We should pay for that privilege by taking responsibility for using them in ways that sustain healthy relationships with one another.

Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation.

This piece is the second installment in a series that will identify and assess the difficult ethical questions surfaced by Harvard’s recent leadership crisis.

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