What IS Academic Freedom and How Can We REALLY Protect It?

10 Jul

Recently I’ve seen something happening across multiple venues in my professional career, both at my own institution and in organizations of which I am a part. That thing is this: colleagues are being targeted for harassment, doxxing, and threats because of their activist viewpoints or work, and the institutions of which they are a part are not doing enough (or anything) to protect them, often under the guise of “academic freedom.”

For instance, this story about a medieval scholar being targeted for her work and going unprotected by the ICMS conference, even when they were asked to intervene. I also know personally several scholars (POC, WOC, LGBTQ+) who have been targeted online, in person, and by mail for their work on race, gender, white supremacy, and related topics. I have been targeted by hateful comments and emails as a result of writing on gender in videogames.

For the most part, these folks are left to fend for themselves when it comes to coping with being the target of (often ultra-conservative, alt-right, and/or white supremacist) harassment. Even if there are procedures in place, institutions do not make them public, leaving their faculty (and staff/students) unaware of the resources available to them.

And when they do ask for help, as with the linked story above, they are often denied, typically with the argument that the opposition (such as the internet-infamous Milo Yiannopolous) has every right to have their “viewpoint” heard, as well. In other words, the opinions of white supremacists, racists, sexists, etc. are given equal weight by our academic institutions to the voices of those calling for tolerance, equality, equity, and progress.

And that is not right.

Do white supremacists have the right to speak about their views? According to the First Amendment, yes, they do. They do not have the right to do so in private places, at privately-run conferences, on college campuses, or in places or in ways which place others at risk as a result. Very often, the manner in which these ideas are shared does put others at risk by inciting violence or encouraging active discrimination (otherwise known as hate-speech).

Academic institutions and organizations are not obligated to perpetuate or permit speech or discussions which impede the progress of knowledge. Biologists are not obligated to entertain the lectures (even the polite ones) of creationists, because science tells us that evolution is true. By this argument, medievalists ought not be obligated to listen to lectures by non-medievalists who suggest that Beowulf is a sacred Aryan text (it’s not–really not)… because all historical and literary facts disprove that claim.

Furthermore, when those who make such suggestions do so in a way that actively causes harm to others, be they activists or not, they have crossed a line from “freedom of speech” to “hate speech,” and no longer have any legal protections, and should therefore not be permitted to continue/attend for reasons of legal protection and basic human decency.

So then why do we keep letting this happen? I suggest the answer is twofold: 1) ignorance, and 2) fear.

  1. Ignorance. We (as institutions, organizations, and individuals) simply don’t know what to do or how to do it. In the case of the ICMS incident, I can easily imagine (and it is only imagining, because I don’t know what happened behind closed doors) that the organizers simply did not know how to prevent a registrant from attending the panel in question. The conference does not have security or tickets to attend particular panels, and the logistics may simply have been “too complicated” to seem do-able. I think this was the wrong response, but I can understand how they came to it (if this is the case).
    This is also true of police forces struggling to figure out how to deal with cross-jurisdictional harassment (as most online harassment crosses district and state, if not also national, boundaries); legal teams trying to determine how best to control or filter electronic communications; and social media platforms facing deluges of both harassment and reports thereof (both false and real). The situation is difficult and very complicated, yes, but we still need to address it, and not by throwing up our hands and saying “I don’t know what to do” and defaulting to “nothing.”
  2. Fear. This comes in multiple forms. First, fear of the possible legal ramifications of curtailing someone’s supposed freedom of speech. If we ban Milo, can we be sued? If we refuse to allow someone to attend something for which they have registered, do they have legal recourse against us? And, let’s be honest, the rich and powerful are more likely to sue than those being oppressed by them.
    Second, fear of loss of funding, business, or popularity. We maintain the status quo because that seems safer. It’s what “we have always done,” and therefore it provides the veneer of security against censure from our audiences. I present the opposing example of Penzy’s spices (bear with me, here). The owner decided “to hell with business” and started posting about how disgusting he found the Trump administration. His business, by the way, has multiplied by 80-fold. That’s 80 times as much business for speaking out against oppression (as a white man, admittedly, but it still illustrates that the risk is sometimes more than worth it).
    Third, the fear of becoming victims ourselves. If we stand with those being oppressed, we risk having their harassers turn on us, as well. If I object to Milo, I might become his next target. This is true… at least so long as we allow that fear to keep us in silence. Because–as with the business example–speaking up is what changes society for the better.

So here’s my counterargument. Stopping oppression, harassment, and threats is always right. Enabling oppression, harassment, threats, and white supremacy is wrong. Academic freedom is not academic freedom when it threatens the safety and security of people, and any actions or language that causes harm does not deserve to be protected.

Every university and organization–academic or otherwise–should have a policy and procedure to protect its members from threats and harm. Every. Single. One.