FIRE condemns threats to academic freedom in comment for United Nations study

May 14, 2020

From arrests of academics in Iran and China to restrictions on campus expression in Russia, there are a number of threats to academic freedom on college campuses around the world. In light of these challenges, David Kaye, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is conducting a study of academic freedom and freedom of expression and its protection on campuses worldwide. Kaye will report his findings to the 75th Session of the General Assembly in the fall of 2020.

FIRE was pleased to offer a comment on April 28, in response to the call for submissions. 

FIRE’s response lays out the protections for academic freedom in the United States and addresses two of the numerous threats facing it today: public demands for faculty firings and overbroad governmental efforts to respond to anti-Semitism.

FIRE assessed cases at a number of institutions, including the University of Kansas, Harvard University, Kirkwood Community College, and Babson College, where universities faced — and acted upon — pressure to punish faculty members who provoked outrage or offense. Our analysis also offers recommendations for how universities can be better equipped to respond to such pressure in a manner that respects and upholds the expressive rights of their faculty. 

Additionally, FIRE restated our concerns that recent governmental efforts to combat anti-Semitism on campuses, regardless of however well-intentioned they may be, have threatened academic freedom and free expression. Most notable among these efforts is President Donald Trump’s signing of an Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism, which directed federal agencies to “consider” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism when assessing institutional responses to alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The IHRA definition’s vague language reaches core political speech protected by the First Amendment. FIRE, of course, takes no position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But, predictably, advocates of its use are already citing the definition to pressure American colleges into censoring protected speech critical of Israel. 

FIRE believes the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are closely linked to the rights of civil society more broadly, and appreciates the opportunity to offer our commentary on this important issue. 

FIRE’s full comment is available below.

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