The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Putting Limits on Acceptable Scholarship


I have a new post up at Real Clear Politics on emerging proposals to monitor and discipline professors for publishing scholarship that is deemed "racist." Unfortunately, the most prominent version of such a proposal comes from a faculty letter at my home institution of Princeton. The letter has a long list of demands, but one in particular stands out for its creativity and implications for the future of academia.

11. Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

This proposal has gotten some attention, and it is not clear how many of the professors who signed the letter actually support its most notorious demand. If we are fortunate, it will be abandoned as a bit of irrational exuberance from the long, hot summer of 2020.

Unfortunately, the proposal to carve out an exception in protections for academic freedom for research is a natural extension of longstanding proposals to regulate "hate speech" on college campuses and beyond. If such an exception to the acceptable range of scholarly research is accepted at leading institutions of higher education, it would certainly be a big step forward in the campaign to convince American courts to discover a new exception to constitutional protections for free speech.

Here's a taste of the Real Clear Politics post:

Given today's expansive and nebulous scope of what might qualify as "racist," it's not hard to imagine such a broad exception to academic freedom being used to remove professors who find themselves on the wrong side of this committee of public safety. Any number of legitimate but controversial questions of scholarly interest could run afoul of such an exception to academic freedom, even if everyone involved was acting in good faith. On matters related to race, the proposal advises scholars not to follow evidence wherever it may lead but rather to question whether the evidence serves the desired political narrative. Substandard or unprofessional research and teaching are in most cases already subject to sanction by universities—but asking an interdisciplinary committee to evaluate whether research in specialized fields of study is professionally incompetent invites politicized investigations.

Read the whole thing here.