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Navigating Speech Across Different Roles

By Zing Gee
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.

In my previous pieces, I have articulated key distinctions for understanding speech-related issues: academic freedom versus free speech, impermissible versus permissible speech, and, within the previous category, good versus bad speech. Last week, I argued that administrators are responsible for addressing impermissible speech, whereas faculty and staff in pastoral roles should address speech that is permissible but bad.

In this article, I make a final distinction among the various roles each of us inhabits. Different roles are subject to different constraints.

By and large, roles fit into three buckets: personal, professional, and civic. My personal roles include mom, daughter, sister, and lover of poetry. My professional roles are professor and newspaper columnist. My civic role is as a democracy advocate.

Sometimes, these roles conflict. Being a professor and a democracy advocate both require many nights and weekends. So does being a mom. To balance these responsibilities, I’ve tagged some nights for family dinners, and reserved others for professional or civic obligations.

Conflicts can also be more serious. If a judge is also the defendant’s best friend, she must recuse herself from the case. In her professional role, she has a duty to judge impartially, but in her personal role, she has a duty to protect her friend. She can’t do both, and so therefore must temporarily abandon her professional role.

Just as our personal and professional roles can come into conflict, so too can our professional and civic obligations, and we must learn how to navigate adeptly between the two when dealing with speech issues.

In the classroom, both students and faculty inhabit professional roles. When they advocate for candidates or issues outside their areas of professional expertise or run for office, they inhabit civic roles. For students especially, delineating between roles can be tricky given that campus life intertwines personal and professional spheres.

The set of rules governing speech is role-dependent. When students and faculty speak in their professional capacity — in a classroom, for example — they are protected by academic freedom. Sometimes, academic topics — for instance, the impact of changing interest rates — are also entangled with political debates. As long as the purpose of classroom discussion is the pursuit of truth and understanding, it falls under academic freedom. Exercising one’s professional role can still involve the introduction of necessarily political or civic topics within the classroom.

But what about extramural speech? It can often be hard to determine the set of laws, rules, and norms that govern speech beyond the campus. When faculty post on social media or engage in off-campus media performances, are they protected by academic freedom or free speech?

Extramural speech deserves the protection of academic freedom any time a faculty member makes a statement in their professional role on the basis of their expertise as a professor. Academic freedom protections should apply even when the faculty member’s intellectual contributions aggravate a healthy majority on intellectual grounds.

But when faculty post on social media or appear on the news to share their own personal opinions (in support or opposition to an issue outside their area of professional expertise), they are inhabiting a civic role, leaving behind the protections of academic freedom, and moving into the zone of free speech.

(Of course, those who hold institutional positions as representatives of the University — such as presidents and deans — have put aside their access to those civic roles for the duration of their appointment.)

We should expect our university to defend us when we act extramurally in our professional capacity. But we should not anticipate university protection for exercising our free speech rights in our civic roles. Neither, however, should we be judged by our university for how we exercise our civic roles.

There is, though, one exception. If our public speech undermines our ability to fulfill our professional duties, we should expect consequences. If I advocate on social media for an obviously unfair grading policy — say, arbitrarily lowering the grades of all male students — I communicate that I can’t fairly fulfill grading responsibilities. My university might reasonably remove me from all positions in which I grade students.

Like the judge facing her best friend in court, I’ve placed myself in a situation in which my two roles conflict: a civic role advocating for a certain grading policy in the public sphere and a professional role requiring me to grade fairly. When these conflicts arise, professors, like judges, must choose between their two roles.

I find it helpful to use different email addresses to separate my professional life from my civic one — the precise use of email involves disciplined attention to the responsibilities and powers of our varying roles.

Students should do this, too — they might use their institutional emails for all correspondence related to class, campus jobs, and student organizations, but personal emails for everything else. Tufts, for example, has an easily findable policy that prohibits the use of institutional emails for political purposes. Harvard also has a policy but it is deeply buried within the University’s webpages, and it’s unclear how many people know about it.

The students in the encampment are currently trying to hold student and civic roles simultaneously. By holding hearings that could require students to withdraw from the College for one or several terms, the University forces a choice between the two.

My hope is that our students might both choose to prioritize their student roles by voluntarily departing the camp and reconsider how they exercise their civic duty. I encourage them to engage in policy-setting forums to develop and promote sound and impactful policies that advance the goal I believe I hear them pursuing: safety and security for all Palestinians and Israelis. If they need help more fully building out such fora, I stand ready to assist.

Correction: May 10, 2024

A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that Harvard does not have a policy regarding the use of institutional emails for political purposes.

Clarification: May 10, 2024

A previous version of this op-ed stated that the hearings of protesters before the Harvard College Administrative Board could result in "involuntary leave." While the Ad Board can indeed force students on leave subsequent to a hearing, it refers to this sanction as a "require to withdrawal." An "involuntary leave," by contrast, is imposed by the Dean of Students and does not require a hearing.

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

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