The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

What are the Limits on Faculty Speech?

My response to Harvard's Dean Lawrence Bobo


On June 15, Harvard's Dean of Social Sciences published an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson arguing that professors could properly be punished for saying things in public that might "incite" outside actors—like alumni and donors—to "intervene in Harvard's affairs." The subtext seemed to be that faculty who spoke out about the leadership of the dean's ally, the former president Claudine Gay, should be punished. This take has proven to be controversial, as co-blogger Jonathan Adler quickly noted.

On June 20, I published a rejoinder to Dean Bobo in the Chronicle of Higher Education. From the piece:

Bobo's views were conventional wisdom among university officials and trustees in 1900. They are shocking in 2024. Shocking, but unfortunately no longer surprising. The Harvard dean's arguments resonate with a growing movement of those who wish to muzzle the faculty. Professors are to be free to speak, so long as they do not say anything that might disturb the powers that be. Those in power may not want the faculty to march to the same tune, but they do all like giving the faculty their marching orders and expecting them not to step out of line.

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, issued jointly by the American Association of University Professors and what was then called the Association of American Colleges, established the now widely adopted rules regarding faculty speech. It specifies that when professors "speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline." The statement does suggest that professors have some "special obligations" when speaking in public, though the AAUP has long urged that those be treated as suggestive rather than obligatory. Even so, the statement merely urged professors to "be accurate" and "exercise appropriate restraint." They "should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances," and thus they should avoid embarrassing themselves in public by being rude or ignorant. But there was no suggestion that they should avoid airing the university's dirty laundry.

Harvard's own free-expression policy, first adopted in the Vietnam era, is if anything even more emphatic about the need for officials to tolerate dissent and critique. It notes that "reasoned dissent plays a particularly vital part" in the university's existence and that all members of the university community have the right to "advocate and publicize opinion by print, sign, and voice." Dissenters are not to obstruct "the essential processes of the university" or interfere "with the ability of members of the university to perform their normal activities," but they are free to "press for action" and "constructive change" by organizing, advocating, and persuading. Bobo's ideas about where the limits of faculty speech are to be found are plainly at odds with both AAUP principles and common university policies, not to mention First Amendment principles that would bind officials at state universities.

You can read the whole thing here (behind a paywall).