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In ‘Chronicle of Higher Education,’ Civil Liberties Attorney Marjorie Heins Discusses Past and Present Threats to Academic Freedom

By on February 8, 2013

Civil liberties attorney Marjorie Heins, founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project, has authored what is sure to be a worthwhile book on academic freedom and its past and present threats. The book, Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge, is out now from the New York University Press.

In a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Heins discusses some of the main themes of her book, including the background of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), which invalidated an anti-communist loyalty oath required of faculty in the State University of New York system. Heins also discusses more recent threats to the academic freedom protections Keyishian affirmed, especially from the Court’s controversial (and much opposed by FIRE) decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), which, as Heins notes, ruled “that statements [made by public employees] made ‘pursuant to their official duties’ can be subject to discipline without violating the Constitution.”

Heins identifies speech codes as another threat to academic freedom, highlighting one of FIRE’s hallmark cases, the shocking (and still unresolved) case of Donald Hindley at Brandeis University:

Whatever the fate of academic freedom in the courts, it is widely accepted as a matter of educational policy. But questions still abound as to its meaning and scope. Obviously professors cannot, in the name of academic freedom, engage in sexual and racial harassment. But too often, vague and overbroad campus speech codes interfere with legitimate teaching. One example arose in 2007, when a Brandeis University professor used the term “wetback” in a course describing American attitudes toward Mexicans, and Brandeis declared him guilty of harassment.

Much more on Hindley’s case can be found here.

I highly recommend Heins’ column, and it goes without saying that I’ll be putting Priests of Our Democracy high on my reading list.