Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications

Academe, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview
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Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications


This report was prepared by a subcommittee of the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and initially published in 1997, A revised text was approved by Committee A and adopted by the Association's Council in November 2004.

The advent of electronic and digital communication as an integral part of academic discourse has profoundly changed the ways in -which universities and their faculties pursue teaching and scholarship. Such changes are manifest in the methods by which information is obtained and disseminated, the means of storing and retrieving such information, and, of course, the ways in which professors teach and students learn. While basic principles of academic freedom transcend even the most fundamental changes in media, recent developments require a reexamination of the application and implications of such principles in a radically new environment.

One overriding principle should shape any such review: academic freedom, free inquiry, and freedom of expression within the academic community may be limited to no greater extent in electronic format than they are in print, save for the most unusual situation where the very nature of the medium itself might warrant unusual restrictions-and even then only to the extent that such differences demand exceptions or variations. Such obvious differences between old and new media as the vastly greater speed of digital communication, and the far wider audiences that electronic messages may reach, would not, for example, warrant any relaxation of the rigorous precepts of academic freedom. The changes in medium, profound though they are, herald what may be even more basic changes, from familiar and tangible physical space to intangible virtual space.

Several specific issues do, however, deserve attention-not so much because the new media differ sharply from the older and more familiar media, but more because college and university policies that were developed for print and telephonic communications may simply not fit (or may fit imperfectly) the new environment. Analysis of these rapidly changing conditions may not only yield clearer understanding of the need for adaptation, but also help to shape policies better suited to the digital environment, while protecting academic freedom as fully as the precepts they modify and even supersede.

Freedom of Research and Publication

The basic precept in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that "teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of results" applies with no less force to the use of electronic media for the conduct of research and the dissemination of findings and results than it applies to the use of more traditional media. Two special concerns may, however, occasion slightly different treatment and might cause the modification of policies.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION IN DIGITAL FORMAT

Ensuring unfettered faculty access to print-format materials (for example, in library collections of monographs and journals) is seldom a concern; universities rarely limit or restrict the availability to faculty of such materials. Access to certain materials in digital form may, however, present different problems. Several universities in the mid- and late 1990s attempted to curtail access, through the campus computer network, to certain sexually explicit graphics (for example, "alt.sex" newsgroups) under conditions where access to comparable print images would be routine. The Virginia General Assembly enacted in 1996 a law that specifically forbade state employees (including all professors at Virginia public institutions) from using state-owned or -leased computers to gain access to sexually explicit materials-at least without receiving explicit permission from a "superior" for a "bona fide research purpose." Although no other state appears to have imposed comparably draconian limits on access, Virginia's law was eventually sustained by a federal appeals court despite vigorous legal challenges by six professors, who persuaded a trial judge that the law abridged First Amendment freedoms.

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