Experts: don’t muddle academic freedom with freedom of expression

Warning accompanies fresh effort to strengthen Europe-wide protections

April 29, 2022
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Politicians wanting to protect academic freedom must not misconstrue it as a form of free expression alone, warn those who have worked on global monitoring and protections of the right.

MEP Christian Ehler told the annual conference of the European University Association that he plans to “force” the European Commission to propose new European Union legal protections for academic freedom. “We have to change the treaties,” he said, meaning the laws that underpin the bloc.

Referring to both the independence of institutions and freedom of researchers, he said lean arguments were now needed and that Europe had “failed to protect” academic freedom, citing the ousting of the Central European University (CEU) from Hungary and the censorship of Polish Holocaust researchers.

“I think we have to be careful, because if we broaden the discussion too much we get into this intellectual and moral superiority of the victim, so you might broaden that academically in a delicious way, but we might not find a way to enforce it in a constitutional and legal sense,” he told the event, held at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

Liviu Matei, professor of higher education and public policy at King’s College London and the founder of the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom, said there was a “very dangerous trend” among some defenders of academic freedom to think it “can be reduced to the freedom of expression”.

Professor Matei, formerly CEU’s provost, said the rights were easily muddled by the media and public, which “understands a lot easier freedom of expression rather than academic freedom”.

Speaking at the same event, David Kaye, clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine and former United Nations special rapporteur on the protection of freedom of expression, said that academic freedom must encompass civil-political rights to education and the advancement of science.

While lawmakers should take care to distinguish academic expression, the authority of such speech was misused during the pandemic, said Karl Tombre, vice-president for European and international strategy at the University of Lorraine. “We have seen in these past years well-known professors saying things that have no scientific foundations,” he said.

Professor Kaye said that academic speech was a specific case, but that he had an “allergy” to using the term “responsibility” and urged caution because governments “often use the word to impose restrictions” on academic freedoms, including expression.

Dr Ehler said he would use his position as chair of the European parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology to build an EU monitoring mechanism for academic freedom.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, he said it was necessary to duplicate a similar system being built by the 49-country Bologna Follow-Up Group, which would lack the legal teeth or financial strings to punish violating institutions or countries. “The problem right now is enforcement. If you look, that is reflected in a lot of efforts,” he said.

The difference between academic freedom and expression was also relevant to campus debates around de-platforming and cancel culture, said Éric Fassin, a professor and co-chair of gender studies at University of Paris 8.

He said that students’ freedom “to say more or less anything provided it’s legal” clashed with academics’ responsibility “to avoid bullshit”, referring to a study of the practice. “The classroom is a place where there’s a collision between two logics: freedom of opinion and academic freedom”, he said.

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