November 17, 2009
The Politics of Free Speech on College Campuses
The freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, has been the focus of debate at institutions of higher learning since their inception. The ability to choose the curriculum and research projects by professors has been an important aspect of the free speech debate for nearly a century but in recent decades the focus has shifted to the student body and what is deemed permissible and appropriate speech in an academic setting. In this essay I intend to examine the evolution of academic freedom as an expression of free speech by college professors and the impact of how the recent adoption of speech codes of conduct is affecting academia as a whole.
The idea of academic freedom, where professors have the right to choose the curriculum and research projects without outside coercion, didn’t gain acceptance in the United States until the 1950’s. Prior to the Civil War most colleges were run by religious institutions giving church leaders, not professors, the power to dictate what curriculum was to be taught. According to Neil Hamilton, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of two books on academic freedom and ethics, professors began to form professional standards around the turn of the 20th century. Hamilton says college faculty would pledge to pursue knowledge without bias and to educate students which, in turn, garnered a hands-off approach with the courts and government agencies.
In her report Academic Freedom, Marcia Clemmitt describes how, in 1915, college professors came together and formed the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The publication of “General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” by the AAUP established a professional code of academic conduct and outlined the fundamental...