Academic Freedom Vindicated

By on October 19, 2001

FIRE’s efforts on behalf of a Columbia Law School professor threatened in his rights by the School administration have resulted in a dramatic vindication of academic freedom.

Professor George Fletcher, a renowned and respected legal scholar, taught an introductory criminal law class in the spring semester of 1999. In one exam, he presented his students with a hypothetical case-based in part on several real cases-that involved a woman who was grateful for a criminal assault that resulted in a miscarriage. Several faculty members and students objected to various aspects of the examination, finding it demeaning to women. The dean of the Law School, David Leebron, informed Professor Fletcher that the complaints he received constituted “a plausible contention of liability an[d] unlawfulness,” and that he was “required to consult with the University’s office of legal counsel” about the matter. He then added that “whether or not the faculty will be asked to take up the matter in any form is at this point speculative, but given the strong views voiced by some, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.” Ominously, Dean Leebron stated in a later letter that Professor Fletcher “MAY [read, may not] be right that the content of an exam falls within the protection of what we in our community regard as academic freedom [emphasis in the original].”

In response, FIRE contacted Dean Leebron directly and sought a retraction of his troubling statements on the limits of a professor’s academic freedom. In a letter to Dean Leebron, Harvey Silverglate, FIRE’s codirector and vice president, expressed concern about the Dean’s uncertainty regarding the degree of protection the exam was to be afforded under the rubric of academic freedom. Silverglate wrote, “the notion that Professor Fletcher, by giving an exam using a shocking hypothetical, somehow discriminated against women and did so in an unlawful manner, is unacceptable to anyone concerned with academic freedom.” FIRE insisted that Dean Leebron reaffirm his commitment to academic freedom, secure Professor Fletcher’s rights, and cease making ominous references to legal liability or faculty action resulting from the exercise of Fletcher’s rightful freedom.

FIRE’s lengthy involvement on behalf of Professor Fletcher finally secured from Dean Leebron an affirmation of that School’s commitment to academic freedom. In a letter to FIRE, Dean Leebron has stated, “Professor Fletcher’s exam was and is protected by academic freedom.” Dean Leebron also declared categorically that the exam did not constitute sexual harassment, and that the incident would have no impact on Professor Fletcher’s career. Silverglate noted, “We are delighted that Professor Fletcher’s academic freedom has been upheld, and we are amazed that it took so long.”

Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia Law School: Threat to Punish Professor for ‘Hostile Environment’ Due to Exam Question