What is free speech’s place in academia?
Recent cases that involve the suspension of employees in state universities are raising questions about the role that free speech should play in the classroom.
Higher learning has long been seen as a place for progressive thought, dating all the way back to the Ancient Greece where philosophers like Plato and Aristotle hashed out some of their philosophies that continue to be examined in schools today. Part of their success was in being able to engage in progressive dialogues that explored a number of theories including governance, rhetoric, and the pursuit of truth.
However, even then, not all thought was considered acceptable within the academy, as the famous trial of Socrates indicates that many felt the man was looking to corrupt the youth of Athens, and as a result, he was sentenced to death, as portrayed in Plato's famous pamphlet.
Despite these issues occurring thousands of years ago, the core of these conflicts still reign true today. What is the role of a professor, especially in an institution of higher learning? Should they teach what they are told or what they think? How should institute lessons in their pupils? What authority do they have when it comes to criticism of the institution in which they are employed? Two recent conflicts in academia have brought these issues to the surface in today's scholarly climate.
MSU and statements of opinion
William Penn, a writing professor at Michigan State University, was recently suspended of his teaching duties because of comments that he made in regard to the Republican Party on the first day of his class, according to Inside Higher Education. In his introductory lesson, Penn explained that, as person who grew up in the 1960's his viewpoints were of a certain bias, and proceeded to discuss political issues that the university deemed disrespectful.
The nature of his comments were critical of Republicans who he effectively called white and old, and were only looking out for their self interests. His lesson was captured on video and posted to the internet, and eventually fell into the hands of university administrators. He was subsequently relieved of his teaching duties, though he still kept employment with the school.
The news source explains that some have argued he was entitled to trial in front of his peers before he his full removal from the classroom. While such protocols are essential for maintaining a strong democracy, they become even more complicated in the academic community as one would think that these professors are taken on for their thought, regardless of the controversy they may produce.
Another professor who was formerly employed by Washington State University in the communications department has recently won a case in a federal appeals court after he was fired for his criticism of the university, according to Seattle Times.
In 2007, the professor was fired after his publication of a two page pamphlet that outlined ways in which the university's school of communications could be revamped, as its future was up for discussion at the time. The pamphlet was seen as criticism of the administration and he was fired as a result.
However, in a freedom of speech victory for professors, a federal district court ruled that his right to distribute such pamphlet was protected under the first amendment, though he has since moved on to become a professor at Arizona State University.
In both of these instances, the issues of what professors can and cannot say have come into question. The role of teacher is an interesting one, as it straddles a line between educator and thinker. On the one hand, their profession is to formulate valuable ideas, while on the other hand there are certain duties that they must fulfill such as the education of youth and maintaining administrative duties. This then prompts the question, where does the true value of a professor lie?