Free Speech and Academic Freedom: What’s the Difference?

Is there a difference between free speech and academic freedom? I think there is, but it is difficult to draw clear lines of distinction. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the effort to do so is important, lest our concept of academic freedom remain unexamined and muddled. This effort may also have practical consequences in guiding our judgment about what should be taught in the university and what, if anything, should be excluded from the classroom.

In practice, there are many things said in the public square that aren’t said in the classroom of a public research university. At UC Berkeley where I teach, sermons about Jesus and the end of the world are frequent topics of the orators in Sproul Plaza, a public place. But this kind of speech doesn’t occur in the classroom. There are classes that study such sermons and predictions, but they do so in an academic manner, setting such discourses in their historical, cultural, and political contexts. In the classroom, one also doesn’t present such speech as the inerrant word of God. This theological difference is one distinction between free speech and academic freedom. If a course consisted of sermons about Jesus (or Moses or Muhammad) and the end of the world, one would think that someone – the Academic Senate? The undergraduate dean? The chancellor? – would end this course, presumably prior to the end of the world or the semester.

Some of this speech is at odds with science. The Sproul Plaza preachers often say that the Bible tells us when the world began and when it will end, and that scientific models of cosmology, geology, biology, and such are wrong. They often allege a conspiracy theory, in which scientists are tools of the devil. These are provocative preachers, whom the audience tends not to take seriously. One certainly doesn’t expect such speech in the classrooms – particularly not in buildings where these scientific models are produced, tested, and taught.

What about political speech? There are many political sermons that occur in Sproul Plaza. Berkeley has a proud tradition of political activism, most famously the Free Speech movement in 1964, which began in Sproul Plaza. There certainly have been classes about this movement and about its historical context and consequences. What about recent Black Lives Matter rallies? I expect that there will be classes about this movement. But I would be surprised if the class advocated the vilification of police. One would study structural and institutional racism, but one would not chant slogans in the classroom. There are obvious differences here.

What about speech that vilifies one side in a political conflict and deliberately excludes the vilified position from serious consideration? What about speech that deals only in slogans and reductive caricature? This kind of speech is at home in Sproul Plaza, where free speech is the rule. But would such speech be acceptable in the classroom as the dominant mode for a class? I think the answer should be no. Such speech is acceptable as political speech, but not as academic discourse. Somewhere here a difference lies.

Many of my colleagues, particular those on the radical left, would disagree about this difference between political speech and academic discourse. They might argue that this is a distinction without a difference, since all discourse is political. This objection is important and certainly has a grain of truth. But even if there is no clear distinction, or if it’s a matter of proportion or emphasis or a slippery slope from one to the other, it seems to me that there is a line beyond which speech becomes too political and insufficiently academic to be welcome in a classroom. Otherwise what one hears in the plaza should always be appropriate for the classroom.

These thoughts have been stimulated by a recent controversy about a course on Palestine taught by an undergraduate who is a member of a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. The faculty sponsor is a lecturer who founded this organization. When this group has rallies in Sproul Plaza, one hears emotional denunciations of the state of Israel as a racist and colonial entity that has no legitimate claim to the land of Palestine. The speaker will usually lead a dramatic chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” A common follow-up chant is “Intifada, Intifada.” This provocative speech is clearly at home in the plaza, where political speech of every kind is free. But does such discourse belong in a classroom? This is the core issue that made the course controversial.

The syllabus for the class makes clear that the goal of the course is to discuss, in theoretical and historical terms, why the state of Israel is illegitimate. The theoretical frame is “settler-colonial theory,” whose most extreme proponents argue that any nation that was created by foreign settlers, like the United States, Canada, Australia, or Israel, is illegitimate. Only indigenous people have political rights to the land.

The reading list for this course consists solely of books and articles by authors who support the political position advocated by the Students for Justice in Palestine, that Israel is an illegitimate nation, which should be boycotted and ultimately dissolved in favor of an egalitarian Palestinian state. The books are very polemical and are often works that have been seriously criticized by specialists. For instance, one book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappé, has been characterized as “polemical” (Journal of Palestine Studies), and “blinded by his need to fit events into a preferred narrative” (Middle East Quarterly). Another expert on the subject – Benny Morris, author of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War – describes the author as “at best … one of the world's sloppiest historians; at worst, one of the most dishonest.” Pappé clarifies his position in another book, stating that Zionism is “a racist and quite evil philosophy of morality and life.”

The other books on the reading list are similarly polemical, including a book published in 1965 by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, which compares the Israeli occupation of Palestine to Nazism and other crimes against humanity. This is the work that influentially defined Zionism as racism, and its concluding chapter naturally calls for “the liberation of Palestine, spearheaded by Palestinians prepared to pay the price.” It is the sole reading for the history of Palestine from 1948 to 1966.

The final assignment of the course is to “articulate non-colonial alternatives” to the state of Israel. This assignment conforms with the political position of the Students for Justice in Palestine.

Does this type of political speech belong in the classroom? Or should there be a difference between the plaza and the classroom in this case? After initially suspending the course, the university determined that it does belong in the classroom. But I have my doubts. At the very least this course blurs the difference between political speech and academic inquiry. It is clearly polemical and one-sided speech, which advances a robust and controversial political agenda, including calls for violence. It also clearly violates university policy on political speech in the classroom. This policy states: “[The University Regents] are responsible to see that the University remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest. Misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing it to be used for political indoctrination … constitutes misuse of the University as an institution.”

But where to draw the line? It is difficult to define the distinctive traits of speech that becomes too politically freighted or one-sided. Perhaps the best response will echo Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of hard-core pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

How would we know when a class crosses the line into “political indoctrination”? Perhaps we cannot intelligently draw that line. But we usually know it when we see it. And this case seems to me to be that.

Of course, such decisions are judgments, not fact. Reasonable people can disagree. But to count as academic speech, such discussions should use rigorous arguments and not descend to name-calling and vilification. The latter belongs in the plaza, not in the academy. If we do not live up to these standards, the public will see no reason to value the university as something different from a public brawl or a clash of partisan ideologies. The discourse on this issue at Berkeley – particularly the rhetoric of the radical left – risks this outcome. If such practices prevail, I fear that we will have erased the difference between free speech and academic freedom.


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