Academic Freedom vs. Free Speech05-15-2022
Wendy Brown is interviewed by David Marchese about the politics of speech codes, wokeness, and academic freedom on college campuses. She begins with an important truism: “Campuses are complicated spaces, because they aren’t just one kind of space: There’s the classroom, the dorm, the public space that is the campus. Then there’s what we could call clubs, support centers — identity based or based on social categories or political interests. It’s a terrible mistake to confuse all of these and imagine that the classroom or the public space of the campus is the same as your home.” Brown offers nuance in her account and especially in her distinction between academic freedom and free speech. This is one of the more important and often forgotten distinctions amidst the fiery rhetoric on all sides. She explains:
Academic freedom needs to be appreciated as a collective right of the faculty to be free of interference in determining what we research and teach. We’re accountable to our disciplines, our peers. We can’t just do anything and have it called quality scholarship or teaching. But the idea of academic freedom is that we are free of external interference. Free speech is different. It’s an individual right for the civic and public sphere. It’s not about research and teaching. It’s not even about the classroom. It’s what you can say in public without infringement by others or the state. Now, what’s the mess-up? The right today is mobilizing state power and using corporate money to attempt to constrain academic freedom in the name of free speech. They’re attempting to say what can’t be taught in primary and secondary schools, and they’d like to get their hands on the public universities. They don’t say we’re trying to constrict academic freedom. They bring free speech in as the rubric for these constraints or censorship and often bring parental rights as well. Now let’s go to the left. The left has permitted a certain moral, political strain to gain a foothold in classrooms where things ought to be more open and contestatory. That’s where I think there’s confusion on the part of the left and the right about whether the classroom is that civic space for free speech or whether it ought to be governed by something more like academic freedom, which is, again, a faculty right. Then the question is, What can and should students be able to do there? My own view is that they ought to be able to try out their ideas but not simply have them presented as a political broadside. That’s not what class is for. That’s for civic space.