Protecting academic freedoms (including academic speech) is a fundamental principle of an open, democratic society. In places that advance learning like colleges and universities, it is especially important that faculty and students be encouraged to grapple freely with ideas and information. On a personal level, I understand that one need not agree with the ideas of others, but each of us must remain firmly committed to the idea that others have the right to their own ideas, opinions, and understanding of facts.
A society’s commitment to democratic principles can be measured by the rights it bestows on its citizens. In the United States, for instance, citizens are empowered with basic freedoms outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution, was fashioned by the Founding Forefathers to mediate infringement of the government on citizens. Of these ten amendments, one of the most highly regarded is the First Amendment. It spells out that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
It is important to know that First Amendment protections also extend to academic freedom at public universities. Academic freedom is defined as “…the belief that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment. Importantly, academic freedom includes academic speech, and it is also about the right to determine what is taught in the classroom.
The University of Wisconsin — Madison has long been committed to the idea of academic freedom and pursuing the truth. Historians agree that going back to before 1890 the university had developed a commitment to academic freedom. On the case of Richard Ely, it was stated, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
The important tradition of academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin — Madison has been tested over time. In one example from a dark and disgraceful moment of American history, Joseph “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy, a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, who once referred to the University of Wisconsin — Madison community as “a nest of communist traitors” (Vanness, June 10, 2015), lobbied hard to erode academic freedoms at the university. However, his nefarious efforts to require faculty to take loyalty oaths prompted such a large backlash from the academic community that he had eventually had to back down. Challenges to academic freedom like those experienced in the McCarthy era underscore the importance of protecting academic freedoms. Recently, Wisconsin lawmakers and impotent university administrators led new attacks on academic freedom in Wisconsin. The community must galvanize around this important matter to thwart their misguided and tactically shortsighted efforts. There is a long tradition of the academic community pushing back against infringements on academic freedom in Wisconsin. “Defense of academic freedom has real roots in Wisconsin, and no doubt the shame of our senator’s legacy contributed to the strengthening of university tenure and shared governance.” (Vanness, June 10, 2015)
Ultimately, however, the commitment to academic freedom that has long flourished in learning communities like the University of Wisconsin — Madison has to be actively guarded from those who would seek to restrict the right faculty and students have to engage openly with ideas. We must be prepared to defend academic speech not only because it is essential to the mission of the academy, but also to honor the highest ideals of our democratic republic.