The Law

Academic Freedom

There is no universally agreed upon definition of academic freedom, and policies vary by institution. Most define it as the protection to pursue knowledge “wherever it leads,” with tenure typically insulating professors from reprisal if it leads someplace dangerous or unpopular. According to the definition developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and often used by courts, academic freedom holds that:

teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties.… Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.… College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure

While the First Amendment involves the relationship between a government and its citizens, academic freedom is mostly between an institution and its faculty, beholden not to law but to bedrock traditions of intellectual independence. And while free speech is premised on the right of individuals to speak their minds and express almost any idea, academic freedom is more discriminating. 

According to Robert Post, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School, academic freedom springs from the notion of disciplinary or professional competence, meaning the right of professors to exercise judgment in matters of research and teaching based on their training and certification within disciplinary associations. The protections of academic freedom are usually also understood as extending beyond matters of speech to encompass the total array of intellectual activities involved in teaching, such as setting a syllabus, inviting guest speakers, assigning reading lists, designing coursework, and grading students

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