Magazine article Academe

The Changing Media and Academic Freedom

Magazine article Academe

The Changing Media and Academic Freedom

Article excerpt

The media have been both enemies and allies of faculty in the fight for academic freedom during the past century.

The founders of the AAuP were so worried about media coverage of professors that they stated in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure that classroom comments by faculty "ought always to be considered privileged communications. Discussions in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large. they are often designed to provoke opposition or arouse debate. It has, unfortunately, sometimes happened in this country that sensational newspapers have quoted and garbled such remarks."

At the same time, the AAuP relied on the media to report on threats to academic freedom. Hans-Joerg tiede, in his new book University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors, argues that the growth of the press was "of particular importance for the development of academic freedom." "Academic freedom cases," he writes, "existed because they were reported in the press, causing negative publicity for university presidents."

Tiede argues that "the press was generally supportive of academic freedom," although the New York Times was a notable exception. In 1916, it editorialized, "Academic freedom, that is, the inalienable right of every college instructor to make a fool of himself and of his college by . . . intemperate, sensational prattle about every subject under heaven, to his classes and to the public, and still keep on the payroll or be reft therefrom only by elaborate process, is cried to all the winds by the organized dons."

The right of a professor to be a fool has been deeply established in academia, in the courts, and even in the media. We defend this right not because foolish comments contribute greatly to ublic discourse but because the fear of being deemed a fool and punished for making controversial comments will silence many faculty.

Whether fighting newspapers, politicians, or college presidents, the AAuP has faced hostile audiences as it has tried to persuade people of the value and necessity of academic freedom. for a century now, the AAuP has sought to make academic freedom a reality, not merely a theory, and that effort has been remarkably successful. today, one of the greatest threats to academic freedom is the attempt to silence professors by keeping them from using social media to communicate directly with the public.


The rise of social media has sparked new attention because blogs and twitter are ideal places for making foolish comments and watching them spread far and wide: the immediacy limits editing and careful thought, the ease of personal expression makes it tempting to reveal everything you think, and the potentially "viral" nature of postings on the Internet makes it easy for critics to transmit a foolish tweet to a far bigger audience. social media create a "paper trail" more permanent than paper.

On December 18, 2013, the Kansas board of regents adopted new rules on "use of social media by faculty and staff" to punish them for "improper use of social media." the AAuP called the Kansas policy "a gross violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom."

The rules are based on the supreme court's 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In that case, which involved a district attorney who had been fired for writing a memorandum critical of his supervisors, the court ruled that when public employees engage in speech "pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for first Amendment purposes, and the constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." the Kansas policy calls for punishing any university employee who "impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers" or "adversely affects the employer's ability to efficiently provide services." the broad policy requires a "balancing analysis" that includes "academic freedom principles" and four other factors: "the employee's position within the university," "whether the communication was made during the employee's working hours," "whether the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment," and "whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university. …

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