//Debate: academic freedom

Debate: academic freedom

Steve Fuller and Alan Haworth debate the merits of a ‘Statement of Academic Freedom’

Dear Steve,

It is easy to empathise with your hostility to the attempts of politicians, bureaucrats, and the like, to interfere with academic freedom. Nevertheless, I am reluctant to sign up to the AFAF statement. I think there can be no doubt that we are living through a period during which freedom of thought and opinion are under threat from many quarters. However, it seems to me that any argument genuinely capable of meeting those threats at the intellectual level needs to be far more considered than the case you present.

Statement of Academic Freedom by Academics for Academic Freedom (www.afaf.org.uk)

‘We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom:

(1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and

(2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.’

By way of illustration, take that piece of nonsense about ‘offensiveness’. One frequently hears it reiterated these days that ‘there is no such thing as a right not to be offended’, but the claim is clearly false. It is obvious that I would be doing something highly offensive if I were to approach some person in the street and say – e.g. – ‘It is my opinion that you and people like you are imbeciles with low standards of personal hygiene’, and it is equally obvious that, in ordinary morality, there is a strong presupposition against such behaviour. Moreover, it would make no difference if the offensive remark were made by an academic; if I had said, for example, ‘I am a professor, and it is my opinion that you and people like you, … etcetera’. Neither would it matter if whether I was inside or outside a classroom. Therefore, your first principle, according to which academics should have unrestricted liberty to express unpopular opinions ‘whether or not these are deemed offensive’ is, to say the least, questionable, and I don’t think you help your case by denying the obvious.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that offensiveness is never permissible, only that we need to think much more carefully about the question of when the prima facie injunction against offensiveness can be overridden. In the case of academic freedom, that means paying close attention to the question of when, and why, the academic’s commitment to the pursuit of truth and understanding renders the injunction void. The simple argument that academics should have carte blanche, just because they are academics is inadequate.

I think its worth adding here that, in many of the cases which raise issues of academic freedom, ‘offensiveness’ is hardly the point. Take the example of Holocaust denial. As I see it, Holocaust denial is an exercise in bullying anti-semitism; a way of saying, in so many words, ‘You Jews, – always whingeing about nothing!’ You only have to consider the nexus of historical events and contemporary power relations which set the context within which the exercise takes place to appreciate that ‘offending people’ is far too feeble an expression with which to describe it. True, it sometimes happens that the spurious fabrications of Holocaust deniers are dressed up as serious historical scholarship, but it is not at all clear why this should legitimise them. And I am sure that parallel considerations apply to many other activities.

Alan Haworth

Dear Alan,

It strikes me that you start with the assumption that free speech is something already out there that needs to be curtailed under certain sensitive circumstances. This is a peculiarly liberal way of thinking about the issue that we take for granted in the English-speaking world. ‘Academic freedom’, after all, was a 19th century German invention. The background political presumption was much more authoritarian – namely, no one has a right to free speech unless it is delegated, which in turn requires legislation and hence a clear sense of rights and obligations.

With that in mind, I read the AFAF statement as asserting a guild right for academics, which implies a corresponding set of obligations that academics have to those whom they might offend. It is not saying that academics can say whatever they want simply because they are academics. As with all guild rights, the issue turns on the use of the tools of the trade, and here the phrase ‘question and test’ in the AFAF statement is crucial to the scope of the freedom being defended.

I have no problem with academics arguing – either in the classroom or on television – that the Holocaust never took place, that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites, or that thermodynamics renders evolution impossible. However, they are then obliged to provide arguments that can be subject to critical scrutiny at the same level of publicity. They cannot get away with saying that it is just their opinion or an article of their faith, full stop. In fact, very few controversial academics are so reticent with their reasons. But those who refuse to offer reasons debase the currency of academic life – even, I might add, when they assert quite inoffensive positions.

No doubt academics, like everyone else, hold views they cannot defend with the tools of their trade. In that case, the terms of academic freedom require that they keep their mouths shut. However, this policy is seriously compromised by a climate of political correctness, partly influenced by the increased university auditing. Academics might be nowadays reluctant to mobilize the intellectual resources needed (e.g. by applying for grants) to give their more outlandish views a fair public hearing because of the censure that voicing such opinions would bring down on them.

As for the more fearless academics who publicly defend offensive positions, at the very least they force opponents to state the precise grounds on which they take offence, which is never a bad thing in a society that fancies itself rational. That the repeated airing of offensive positions might give solace to undesirable political factions strikes me as a fair risk for an enlightened society to take. Once again, if the words of a controversial academic are touted as supporting such a faction, the academic is obliged to state where he or she stands on the matter. It is not sufficient simply to say one’s words are being opportunistically used. This point goes to the guild element of protecting the tools of intellectual trade.

Steve Fuller

Dear Steve,

As you raise the subject of free speech, let me begin by stating my position on that. I hold that there is a presumption in favour of everyone’s being free to say whatever they like on any occasion whatsoever. That makes me a liberal. However, it is, I think, essential to answer the question; What justifies the restriction of that liberty? Its perfectly obvious that something must. Otherwise, I would be entitled to stand outside your house with a megaphone at three o’clock in the morning, keeping you awake with readings from my favourite political manifesto. Or, to borrow a frequently cited example, I would be entitled to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, simply for the sake of causing mayhem. By the way, this is not at all equivalent to the view you attribute to me; the view according to which free speech is somehow ‘out there’ (it isn’t) but that there are ‘certain sensitive circumstances’ in which it ought to be restricted. On the contrary, I am simply pointing out that any serious philosophical account of free speech must define the specific category, or categories, of acts it deems worthy of protection, and explain why they are.

Fuller & Haworth

Fuller & Haworth
The same goes for academic freedom, so let me now turn to that. You and I are clearly agreed that academics, insofar as they aspire to be good intellectuals, must concern themselves with the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and that this requires the protection of conditions within which even the most wild and controversial theses can be tested against standards of reason and evidence. To borrow J.S. Mill’s expression, there must be full ‘liberty of thought and discussion’ for those engaged in the pursuit of truth. This being so however, it follows that ‘academic freedom’ is a confusing expression for what is at issue between us. I take it that ‘academics’ are, by definition, individuals who work in universities or similar institutions, but the freedom really at issue here is intellectual freedom, and it is just not true that all intellectuals are academics. Of course intellectuals should be free to argue and debate, but, so far as I can see, there is no argument for absolving academics of normal responsibilities and treating them as a privileged cadre with distinct ‘guild rights’ of their own.

Moreover, I think it’s important for academics, in their capacity as intellectuals, to recognise that when they move from the relative privacy of the seminar room to the public realm, they go from a place in which seekers after truth confront each other as equals in rational debate (or try to), to a world fraught with dark moral complexity and ambivalence. Finally, then, you say that you ‘have no problem’ with academics arguing, in public, ‘that the Holocaust never took place, that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites, or that thermodynamics renders evolution impossible’, so let me ask you this. Would you be prepared to debate, in public, the proposition that Elvis Presley is alive and well and living in Moscow? I can’t believe that you would, because I can’t believe that you would be prepared to go through the pretence of treating it as the legitimate ‘other side’ in a serious debate. So, why adopt a different attitude to, e.g., ‘The Holocaust never took place’? (By the way, I’ve borrowed this example from Deborah Lipstadt’s impressive study, Denying the Holocaust.) For all their faults, academics do have a certain standing in the public eye, and they should remember that the opportunity to strike an ‘academic’ posture can serve duplicitous purposes. Do you really want to say that fascists, racists, and the like are just harmless wishful-thinkers, like those sad Elvis fans?


Dear Alan,

I am sorry you find the concept of academic freedom confusing. However, the fact that intellectual freedom is conceptually broader – perhaps even vaguer — than academic freedom does not mean that academic freedom presupposes a more general concept of intellectual freedom. On the contrary, the distinctiveness of intellectual freedom is based on extending the conditions of academic freedom to society at large. The main problem with your example of arbitrarily shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre is that while it involves speech there is nothing especially intellectual about it: The problem it raises is simply that of licence in liberal societies, solutions to which depend on how much a society can tolerate and who is authorized to judge.

However, to exercise intellectual freedom is to enable our ideas to die in our stead, to recall Karl Popper’s neat phrase. I have called it ‘the right to be wrong’, the ability to assert now without compromising one’s ability to assert in the future, even if one’s assertions are shown to be false. Intellectual freedom in this sense presupposes an institutionalised dualism, such that, literally, you need not put your money where your mouth is: ‘Speculation’ in the intellectual and financial senses are kept apart. A true believer in intellectual freedom would thus wish for an environment in which one can commit what statisticians call Type I errors with impunity – that is to say, err on the side of boldness (‘false positives’).

The modern model for this environment is academic tenure, which was originally introduced to simulate the property ownership requirement for citizenship in ancient Athens. This historical link was forged by the founder of the modern university, Wilhelm von Humboldt, to whom Mill’s On Liberty is dedicated. On the one hand, an Athenian citizen who was voted down in the public forum could return to his estate without concern for his material security; on the other, his economic significance for the city obliged him to offer opinions in the forum at the next opportunity. Citizens who refrained from self-expression were routinely ridiculed as cowards.

Correspondingly, if academic tenure were policed more rigorously for its entailed obligations, then the conditions surrounding its current erosion would not be tolerated. To the increasing number of academics who know only of the current neo-liberal knowledge production regime, tenure looks like an excuse to never stray from one’s intellectual comfort zone. But even if many – if not most – tenured academics conform to that stereotype, it is entirely against the spirit of tenure and indeed arguably merits censure.

At the same time, a much more charitable view should be taken towards tenured academics deemed ‘publicity seekers’ who self-consciously – yet often sincerely – advance outrageous views in the public forum. These people routinely expose themselves to criticism, in response to which the life of the mind is performed for society at large. Whether they ultimately win or lose these struggles is less important than the occasion they provide for thinking aloud, a process to which others may subsequently contribute, the result of which raises the overall level of social intelligence.

The sort of people I have in mind – say, Alan Dershowitz, Bjørn Lomborg, Richard Dawkins – most genuinely embody the spirit of intellectual responsibility. And, yes, I would add to this list the Holocaust revisionists, the eugenicists, the racists, the creationists and academia’s other despised elements. If you genuinely believe that society needs to be protected from the views of these people, then it has not earned the right to intellectual freedom.


Dear Steve,

This is my last letter, so let me take the opportunity to summarise my position. The main points are these.

First: There is an ‘Elvis test’ for opinions. I see that you didn’t answer the question I put to you last time, so let me raise it again. Would you be prepared to debate, in public, the proposition that Elvis Presley is alive and well and living in Moscow? Actually, I doubt that you would, – except on Red Nose Day perhaps. Let me vary the example. Suppose that you are a member of a committee charged with funding research projects. There is a proposal to investigate the hypothesis that Elvis is alive and living in Moscow. The funds will enable a researcher to fly there and, if possible, conduct a full length interview with Elvis. Would you support the project on the grounds that every hypothesis, however wild, should be given an equal hearing?

Should you answer in the affirmative, I’m afraid I would find it impossible to take you seriously, and so, I believe, would most readers. Such readers might well be prompted to reflect that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding through debate cannot be a rough-and-tumble affair. On the contrary, it requires the recognition, implicit or explicit, of certain conventions, including the recognition that not all opinions are equally contestable. Both Holocaust denial and Elvis assertion fail on this score, as do creationism and attempts to draw significant connections between race and intelligence. It follows that protection of a ‘right’ to advance such theses is not the protection of intellectual freedom, but misguided collusion with the opportunistic and the deranged in the pretence that their activities are intellectually ‘respectable’.

Second: I wish you would cease insinuating that my reluctance to sign up to the AFAF statement stems from a wish to protect sensibilities. This time, you have saddled me with a desire to ‘protect society’ from the views of racists, creationists, and others. I would certainly be an easy target if I held such an exaggerated view of the power academics wield, but I don’t. I know very well that racists and religious bigots will continue to express their opinions in public whatever academics do. We now inhabit a ‘global village’ do we not? In fact, all I am expressing is a disinclination to endorse the activities of Nazis and others with a licence stamped ‘academic freedom’.

Third: It is certainly true that the dog is a four legged animal but it would be a simple logical error to conclude from this that all four legged animals are dogs. Likewise, it is certainly the case that academics (i.e. university teachers and the like) have a responsibility to protect and foster freedom – intellectual freedom, that is – but it doesn’t follow that the responsibility falls solely on the shoulders of academics. It also falls on those of others, including others who work in universities. Moreover, it can be abused by anyone. Let me reiterate a point I made last time, namely that intellectual freedom – that is, freedom to pursue truth and understanding through open debate – is distinct from what you mean by ‘academic freedom’. What you would like is the creation of a caste apart, with special rights and privileges (hence your arcane disquisition on the subject of tenure). Against this, I hold that universities are not private debating clubs, and that administrators are right to worry if racism and creationism are being passed off as serious history and serious science within their institutions.

In conclusion then: The AFAF statement may have a stirring ring to it, but, I would recommend circumspection to anyone thinking of signing it. Consider how its principles are, in reality, likely to be interpreted and the causes they could well be used to defend.


Dear Alan,

I passed silently over the ‘Elvis test’ because it is a poor thought experiment to define our differences. Like you, I probably would not fund the ‘Living Elvis’ hypothesis. But that would be less out of the hypothesis’s unlikelihood than out of deference to other hypotheses that, even if shown false, would illuminate more of what matters.

You would do better to distinguish the Living Elvis hypothesis from one that you elide it with: Holocaust Denial. This is clearly an issue that does matter, where the hypothesis is very likely false, yet I believe should be funded to subject its strongest version to critical scrutiny. Like so many hypotheses of this kind, its falseness is most evident when taken as literally as its advocates would have us do. However, the effort we expend to falsify these hypotheses forces us to turn a diagnostic eye on the de facto limits we place on ‘free inquiry’ in the name of ‘political correctness’.

Let’s stick with Holocaust Denial. The ‘six million Jews’ figure was originally advanced as a back-of-an-envelope estimate during the 1946 Nuremberg Trial. Normally a figure constructed under such politicised circumstances would be hotly debated, if not treated with outright scepticism. At the very least, researchers would be expected to raise or lower the figure as they weighed the evidence. Holocaust deniers make much of the fact in their own case that these norms seem to be suspended, or at least attenuated. It is important to understand why they may be right on this point, even if their overall case is wrong and perhaps even malicious. It goes to why ‘intellectual freedom’ makes no sense other than as a generalisation of academic freedom.

A society that genuinely enjoyed the freedom we protect in academia would treat your gross phrase ‘the activities of Nazis’ as in need of serious wheat-and-chaff treatment. Ideally it should sound more like ‘the activities of liberals’ or ‘the activities of conservatives’: People would then publicly disaggregate the Nazi activities and judge them on their own terms, questioning whether they need to be bundled with the heinous activities historically associated with them.

We should be able to conclude – without fear or loathing — that Nazi sympathisers, regardless of their ulterior motives, deserve credit for, say, sensitising us to how our desperation for clear moral benchmarks compromises our critical capacities. I do not believe our moral outrage would be diminished, were we to learn that the Nazis exterminated only 6000 rather than 6 million Jews. But perhaps those like Alan who would censure Holocaust denial do not trust the maturity of collective human judgement?

Traditionally children and primitives had to be regaled with exaggerated accounts of unspeakable evil out of fear they would otherwise not do good. The Enlightenment was all about escaping from this state of ‘nonage’, as Kant put it. He wanted people to be legally recognised as adults empowered to discuss and decide matters for themselves through public deliberation. However, Kant’s most politically effective follower, Wilhelm von Humboldt, realized that this Enlightenment ideal required an institutional vehicle through which all of society may be slowly but surely encompassed. With that in mind he invented the modern university.

You complain about the ‘elitism’ of academic freedom but I’m afraid that all universalist projects have been about extending to the many what had been possessed by the few. Of course, as Hegel was especially fond of observing, various things may be lost and gained in the process. But without awareness of this process, it is all too easy to slip into metaphysical appeals to ‘intellectual freedom’ underwritten by chimerical intuitions married to half-baked notions of human nature.


Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick
Alan Haworth is senior research fellow at the Global Policy Institute