The Permutations of Academic Freedom
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
We are here on this occasion to discuss academic freedom, but at the outset I feel I must caution the audience. And the caution is simple: Listening to academics talk about academic freedom is like listening to Texans talk about oil, or reporters talk about the importance of freedom of the press, or football coaches talk about the character-building opportunities of intercollegiate athletics. Academic freedom is indeed an important topic, as much today as in the past, but none of us here speaking on this occasion is a disinterested observer of the topic of academic freedom. We would like to think that we serve as analysts without having any self-interest, but that is, at least in part, false, because we are, as academics, beneficiaries of academic freedom. And thus the self-interest that is involved in talking about a principle and a right that brings special benefits and privileges to people like us ought to be taken into account in evaluating the soundness of what we have to say. But having offered this caution, I will trust the audience to make their ownevaluation, and thus proceed to the substance of what I want to say. My job on this occasion, at least as I understand it, is primarily to engage in conceptual clarification. Regardless of the topic, I believe quite strongly that we cannot begin to think about getting things right unless we start by trying to get things straight. And thus I am going to engage in some ground clearing at the outset without taking strong, or for that matter even weak, normative or prescriptive positions. I will begin by drawing your attention to three different dimensions of academic freedom. Many of you are no doubt familiar with at least some of the current debates and current controversies that surround the topic of academic freedom. Without rehearsing these debates, however, I want to situate them within three different areas of potential confusion, and within three different relationships that might implicate the academic freedom question.