Everywhere in the United States, but nowhere more so than in Florida, academic freedom is being attacked. Six new members were appointed to the board of New College of Florida, a minor liberal arts college in Sarasota, by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). The team’s apparent mission, which conservative activist and new board member Christopher Rufo referred to as a “hostage-rescue operation,” is to “alter everything” at the institution, including the curriculum, departments, and faculty.
A new Advanced Placement course on African American studies was not allowed to be taught in Florida’s public schools later that month because it contravened the state’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which was passed last year. The state’s desire to “curb” diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Florida’s public schools and universities was stated by Lt. Governor Jeanette Nuez (R-Fla.).
But the biggest legal defense Florida has put forward for the Stop WOKE Act poses the greatest risk to academic freedom. The law is a component of a flurry of “educational gag orders” that forbid the dissemination of “divisive ideologies.” Violations can result in severe fines for colleges and disciplinary action against faculty.
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Florida’s attorneys argue in a brief submitted to a federal court that professors at public colleges work for the government, that classroom discourse is “government speech,” and that the Stop WOKE Act is merely the state’s “choice to police its own speech.”
The district court temporarily stopped the statute’s application, describing Florida’s reasoning as “positively dystopian” and adding that it would give Florida “unrestricted jurisdiction to gag its professors.” Florida, though, filed an appeal, so it’s unclear how the case will ultimately turn out.
Florida’s law would undo more than a century of advancement in the establishment of academic freedom, which has enabled American universities to reach international preeminence if it were found to be constitutional. As a result of innovations in science, medicine, and other academic fields following the Civil War, research universities devoted to the creation and transmission of new information began to flourish in the United States.
Faculty members started to think of themselves as members of a learned profession with specific norms around the same period. They adopted ideas about teaching, learning, and inquiry freedom from their German colleagues. However, the promotion of academic independence was not imminent.
According to academic Robert C. Post, the majority of American universities were still “owned and operated by churches, by private proprietary proprietors, or by the state” in the early 1900s. It was believed that faculty members may lose their jobs if they embarrassed their school, offended the board, or offended donors.
For instance, Jane Stanford, the widow of Leland Stanford and the only trustee of Stanford University, ordered the president to fire renowned economist Edward A. Ross in 1900 because of his support for abolishing the gold standard and restricting immigration in ways that were both anti-black and at odds with Leland Stanford’s previous railroad interests.
The American Association of University Professors was founded in part in response, and it soon released the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The declaration argued that higher education institutions benefited American society by doing research, imparting knowledge, and providing expert training, rejecting “the conception of a university as an ordinary corporate operation.”
Faculty are required to be free to pursue and communicate knowledge “without fear or favor” in order to carry out these crucial duties. As a result, academics should not be viewed as employees but rather as “appointees,” who have a greater duty to the general public and “the judgment of their own profession” than to administrators and trustees who “hired” them.
The proclamation included considerable restrictions on the academic freedom it envisioned. Only those “who carry out their activity in the mood of the scientific inquirer” were entitled to teaching freedom. Faculty were also advised to “refrain from intemperate or spectacular styles of expression” in their extramural discourse. But the report argued that only academic bodies should have the authority to impose discipline because they were the only ones qualified to assess academic work.
As nationalistic fervor swept the nation during World War I, the AAUP displayed their limited perspective by labeling those who opposed American involvement as “enemies of the state” and supporting the dismissal of professors who engaged in “propaganda” or encouraged others to refuse mandatory military service.
The commissioner of education for President Warren G. Harding declared that he would “joyfully” murder proponents of “dangerous un-American beliefs” during the interwar years due to concerns over radical socialism. Bertrand Russell, a British academic, was denied permission to teach at the City College of New York in 1940 as a result of his alleged morally dubious opinions on topics like same-s*x unions.
The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which continues to serve as the primary source for university academic freedom policy, was made as a result of the AAUP’s decision to approve it in response to his case.
According to the statement, faculty members are entitled to “full freedom in research and the publication of the results,” and “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” (so long as they don’t bring up unrelated “controversial matters”), and freedom from “institutional censorship or discipline” when they “speak or write as citizens,” with the warning that they should be precise, restrained, and respectful of “the opinions of others.”
Despite this assertion, academic freedom was suppressed during the McCarthy Era in the early 1950s on the grounds that the Communist Party “demanded unquestioning fealty,” which was incompatible with the independence necessary for a scholar’s position.
Many professors received criticism or were let go. Additionally, as the University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins noted, those consequences had a deterrent impact on the considerably larger proportion who “believe they could be.”
In the late 1950s and 1960s, rulings made by the Supreme Court extending free speech safeguards were influenced by the excesses of the McCarthy era. Academic freedom was acknowledged by the court in Keyishian v. Board of Regents in 1967 as a “particular concern” of the First Amendment, which “does not tolerate legislation that cast a veil of orthodoxy over the classroom.”
Similar to this, AAUP statements from 1964 and 1970 strengthened the group’s suggestions for safeguarding extramural faculty speech, improved due process safeguards for tenure-line faculty facing disciplinary action, and included part-time faculty and teaching assistants in the protection of academic freedom.
The definition of academic freedom has changed over the years, and despite periodic opposition from both the left and the right, academic freedom is now largely acknowledged as a fundamental principle in American schools and universities. However, Florida is determined to go back to a time when professors were treated like mere employees who were under the power of their employers.
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The main basis for Florida’s position is a 2006 Supreme Court case called Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which a deputy district attorney was punished for criticizing a local sheriff. In a 5-4 ruling, the court determined that the First Amendment “does not shelter public employees’ communications from employer discipline” when they “make statements in furtherance of their official obligations.”
Justice David Souter warned in his dissent that the majority’s opinion might “imperil the First Amendment protection of academic freedom in public colleges and universities, whose teachers must speak and write “pursuant to official duties” despite the court’s express refusal “to decide whether [its] analysis… would apply… to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching.”
Garcetti has an academic exemption recognized by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th circuits, but other circuit courts have not yet weighed in, and the Supreme Court has drifted dramatically to the right since 2006. Academic freedom in public university classrooms — and possibly elsewhere — will be history if Florida ultimately succeeds.
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