U. of Oregon Faculty and Admins Debate Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Civility

By September 16, 2013

Colleen Flaherty wrote for Inside Higher Ed last Thursday to highlight the debate between University of Oregon faculty and administrators regarding revisions to the university’s policies on free speech and academic freedom.

Faculty members initially proposed language that would provide broad protections for faculty speech, including the “right to engage in internal criticism, which encompasses the freedom to address any matter of institutional policy or action, whether or not as a member of any agency of institutional governance.”

This provision addresses precisely the kind of speech at issue in the recent decision in Demers v. Austin (PDF); in that case, Washington State University professor David Demers claimed that the university retaliated against him for sharing his plan for improving WSU’s communications programs. Earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Demers’ speech was protected under the First Amendment—a ruling that’s binding on the nine states in the Ninth Circuit, including Oregon.

But despite this judicial victory for faculty rights, the University of Oregon’s proposed policy strikes the language explicitly protecting internal criticism.

Flaherty explains another serious problem with the university’s proposal:

The university statement mentions civility twice in a section on faculty responsibilities, including that faculty are responsible for treating “students, staff, colleagues and the public fairly and civilly in discharging his or her duties and in accordance with this agreement.” Civility clauses have long been of concern to advocates for professors. While it’s hard to find people who are anti-civility, many academics note that requiring civility can become a tool for punishing those professors who speak out against their bosses or who push unpopular positions.

FIRE has long warned of the dangers of mandating civility on college campuses. With the persistent phenomenon of colleges abusing speech codes to punish unpopular viewpoints, concerns about Oregon’s proposed policy are certainly warranted.

Read more about the policy proposals in Inside Higher Ed, and check back to The Torch for updates.

Schools: University of Oregon