Some background: I'm a white, male, tenured faculty member at UC
Davis, and a 3rd generation academic. I work in relatively
uncontroversial areas of science (primarily bioinformatics & genomics)
at a university that is about as protective of academic freedom
as you can get these days. I also live in a country that is (at least
formally and legally if not always in practice) more protective of
free speech than most countries in the world. For these reasons, I have
less to fear from expressing my opinions -- on my blog, on Twitter, or in person -- than virtually
anyone, anywhere, ever has.
A week ago, I tweeted Dr. Alice Dreger's article, Wondering if I'm
the Next Tim Hunt. I was surprised,
frustrated, and upset by the response of a number of colleagues on
Twitter, who essentially said "speech that I disagree with is not
protected by academic freedom." (This is a bit of a paraphrase, but I
think an accurate one; judge for yourselves.)
I must say that I don't really care about Dr. Tim Hunt per se, and
that whole issue has been covered very well elsewhere. He made
clearly sexist and harmful remarks and is not a credible role model.
To the extent that I have anything useful to say, I am worried about
the reported actions of UCL in this interview with Mary Collins.
What I am much more worried about is the degree to which academics
seem oblivious to the issue of academic freedom. It takes a special
kind of obliviousness and subjectivity to look at the history of
science and argue that academic researchers should be restricted in
the scope of their opinions by their employer. For more on the
sordid history of academic freedom, see the wikipedia page.
But, you know what? I don't work on academic freedom, and I'm not a
lawyer, so I can't comment on nuances of employment contracts vs
teaching vs publication, speech vs action, etc. All I can do is tell
you why I care about free speech and academic freedom, and what my
personal experiences are in this area, and try to explain my perspective.
Communism and my family
In a very real sense, my brothers and sisters and I only exist because
of practical limits on free speech.
My father left the
United States after receiving his PhD because he'd briefly been a
member of the Communist Party. From personal conversations with him,
I believe he was keenly aware of the danger of staying in the US, and
knew that his academic career would have been in danger had he
In England, he met his first wife with whom he had my three oldest
siblings, all of whom were born in Europe. (He met my mother when
he returned to Princeton.)
Ironically, he managed to run afoul of both the US Government (by
being a former member of the Communist Party and leaving their reach)
and the Communist Party (from which he was evicted for asking too many
I grew up on stories of him being called into British government
buildings to meet with US officials who wanted him to surrender his
passport (which would have prevented him from traveling); when he
wouldn't surrender his passport, the US officials tried to get the
Brits to take it from him. That never happened; the Brit response was
to ask for a letter from the US, which of course wasn't forthcoming
because all of this was unofficial persecution.
I also grew up on stories of him being wined and dined by the Stasi
when he was visiting his first wife's family in Eastern Europe, in
attempts to recruit him. This, together with his habit of sending
theoretical nuclear physics journals to colleagues in Russia, led to a
frightening-in-hindsight visit by several serious men in dark
sunglasses from the FBI in the early 80s (I was about 10).
Interestingly, despite having been very politically active early on,
my father was completely apolitical during my life. In the last years
of his life, I got some minimal insight into this from his recounting
of the Peekskill riots, but I never got
the whole story.
Academic freedom doesn't protect you from being sued personally
Some 20-odd years ago (I'm feeling old today) I mirrored a spam
blacklist site on my employee account at Caltech. (This was back when
the Internet was new enough that such things could be maintained
somewhat manually. ;) One of the people on the spam blacklist got very
upset and sent some very nasty e-mails threatening everyone and
everything at Caltech with lawsuits unless we removed it.
The resulting conversation escalated all the way to the provost (who I
was actually doing research for at the time - see below), and I had the
awkward conversation where I was told:
- we have no problems hosting this, if you make the following modifications
to make it clear this isn't Caltech's official opinion;
- we're not going to fire you or anything like that;
- but we won't protect you yourself from libel litigation, so good luck!
Nothing ever happened, but it made the indelible point on me that
academic freedom is a thin reed to clutch - people can still bring
legal action against you for what you said, even if you face no
blowback from your employer.
Climate studies and modeling
I worked for a few years on climate studies with Dr. Steven Koonin,
back when he was provost at Caltech (and before he took up his
position at BP). My scientific career exists in part because of the
work I did with him. I regard him as a mentor, colleague, and friend.
In 2014, Dr. Koonin wrote an op-ed on climate change (here)
that I think makes many good points. Knowing him personally, I trust
his judgement; having worked (a small bit) in this area, and having a
reasonable amount of experience in modeling, I am in agreement with
many of his central points.
This measured response
is a good example of true scientific debate in action. We need more
of this, in general. (I'm a particular fan of Dr. Koonin's suggestion
on model evaluation; he's a smart scientist.)
Several people privately told me that they thought Dr. Koonin was an
idiot for writing this, and others told me it was our responsibility
as scientists to toe the climate change line for fear of doing further
damage to the environment. I disagree with both of these groups of
people, even though I believe that climate change is anthropogenic and
we need to do something about it. I think Dr. Koonin made some good
points that needed to be made.
Blogging and intellectual community
About 2-3 times a year, I get a request to change something in a blog
post. Very rarely is it because what I've said is wrong; it's
usually because it makes someone uncomfortable or unhappy. As a
matter of policy, I refuse to do so (plus my blog is under version
control, and I'm certainly not going to rewrite my git history :).
(I don't have any problem with posting explicit corrections when I'm
A key point is that I don't expect to be fired for anything I say in
my blog posts. Completely apart from having an awful lot of privilege
(white, male, tenure, supportive family, no health problems), there's
an expectation that what I say on my blog is subject to academic
freedom. I've never gotten any pushback from my employer and I don't
expect to, no matter how critical I am of them.
Joe Pickrell makes a very good point
that intellectual community is key to academia. How can we have
robust discussion and without academic freedom? (Rebecca Schuman
makes an excellent related point about adjuncts, job security and
academic freedom, here,
with which I greatly sympathize.)
Privilege, and free speech, and academic freedom
(I'm not a lawyer, so please correct me. This is my understanding.)
Free speech is a constitutional right in the US; as such it only
applies to government action. If my employer is upset with my speech,
they are free to fire me; Twitter is under no obligation to allow
me to tweet whatever I want; etc.
Academic freedom is, essentially, free speech commuted to academic
employees: basically, universities should not fire people for something
they said. While I am still individually liable for what I say under
the law of the country I'm in, my employer cannot fire me without some
substantial process (if at all) for what I say.
There are a lot of tricky bits in there, though.
For example, when I wrote on Twitter, "academic ideal: I should be
able to hold & defend ideas w/o fear of losing my job", I got a very
important response from a colleague -- White men exercising their
entitlement to this ideal seems to be at odds with marginalized people
gaining the same
(Please read the rest of that Twitter commentary if you're at all
interested in this!)
I don't have a sophisticated response to offer; as a tenured white guy
whose research isn't in this area, I am only slowly learning about
this area, and a large part of that learning is being open to
colleagues who tell me about their experiences (latest horrific
example, of many: Julie Libarkin,
with whom I work on learning evaluation). For this reason I tend to
simply stay quiet and do what I can to foster a welcoming environment. I certainly don't feel
qualified to say anything intelligent on the specific question of
I do have two tentative thoughts that I keep on coming back to,
though, and I'd welcome feedback.
One thought is this: we can only have conversations about sexism and
privilege and systemic oppression because of free speech, and, in the
university, because discussions of these controversial topics are
protected by academic freedom. I have colleagues and mentees who come
from "free speech challenged" countries (I'm not being more specific
in order to protect them), and the stories they tell me of government
and institutional oppression are horrifying. With respect to one
actual real-life example that happened to the family of a colleague, I
can confirm that I would say virtually anything you want me to if you
took my children, put them in a jail cell, and threatened them until I
acquiesced. We are fairly far from that in the US (with national
security and terrorism being one horrible counterexample), and I value
that tremendously. I would hate to see that weakened even in the
service of efforts that I believe in passionately.
My other thought is this: limits to academic freedom and free speech
are and always have been a double edged sword. This is almost the
definition of a "slippery slope" situation - it's very hard to enact
precise limitations on free speech that don't have seriously
unintended consequences. It's pretty easy to find pairs of examples
to juxtapose -- consider gun rights
vs animal rights.
I bet relatively few people are sympathetic to both lawsuits on any
grounds other than academic freedom! But most people will be sympathetic
to at least one. How else to square this but academic freedom??
So inasmuch as I have anything to say, it's this: we should be careful
what we wish for, because your well-intentioned limits on free speech
and academic freedom today will be used used against you tomorrow.
And if you don't agree that happens, you are taking an ahistorical
There's a long and righteous history of defending the most disgusting
and horrifying actions based on due process. For one example,
rest on a despicable character, Ernesto Miranda, who was later
convicted of some horrible crimes. Presumably most of my readers
would agree that Miranda rights are a net win for the rights of the
accused, but note that it was controversial -- for example, the
Supreme Court decision was 5-4. (The wikipedia page is a very good
So, ultimately, I don't think there's any conflict in arguing for due
process or legal protections of free speech, academic freedom, or
anything else, no matter how heinous the speech being protected is.
And if you disagree, then I think you're not only wrong but
That having been said, I'm unsympathetic to people who want me to host
their obnoxious speech. I can't see any reason why I, personally, am
required to pay attention to what anyone else is saying. I don't
have any reason to put up with (say) sexist speech within my lab, or
on my blog. Nor do I have to engage with, pay attention to, or
promote, those who have opinions I find to be silly or nonsensical.
(One exception here - academic norms require me to engage with those
opinions that bear on my own academic research.)
p.s. Respectful comments only, abiding by the Principle of Charity; others may
be deleted without notice, and commenters may be banned. My blog, my
rules. Read the above if you're confused :).