The Senate Source

May 2015

Council Issues Statement on Academic Freedom and Civility

The Academic Council has issued a Statement on Academic Freedom and Civility, emphasizing the preeminent value of academic freedom in campus speech in response to concerns that recent efforts to encourage civil discourse on campus have the potential to chill free speech.

The statement was originally drafted and proposed by the University Committee on Academic Freedom (UCAF).

Senate Chair Mary Gilly has asked Senate offices to disseminate the statement to faculty and make it available on Senate academic freedom committee websites. Her letter to Senate directors and chairs also notes that it would be beneficial to make the statement available for distribution as a supplement to similar statements issued by campus chancellors each fall.

“Council hopes the Statement will help provide faculty and others on campus with a principled basis for further discussions about academic freedom and civility,” she said.  

The statement was not without controversy on Council, where there were challenges to the view that academic freedom has “preeminent” value in speech on campus where instances of uncivil behavior have erupted in demonstrations and interchanges around specific issues. However, Council was ultimately persuaded by the argument that free speech can make people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, and that academic freedom should not depend on the extent to which speech is defined as “respectful.” Concerns about civility are important, and indeed, the statement starts by noting that discourse should always begin with an aspiration to civility, but those aspirations should not trump academic freedom nor constrain one’s ability to express views in an impassioned way.