FIRE statement on protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression in virtual classrooms

April 2, 2020

Faculty

Just as in a physical classroom, faculty should enjoy broad control of the virtual classroom environment. To the extent practicable on the digital platforms employed to facilitate distance learning, faculty must be able to lead discussion without interruption, disruption, or unreasonable distraction from students in attendance or others who may be nearby, and must be granted substantial deference in taking necessary steps to do so. 

For example, reasonable steps may include controlling students’ microphone access; imposing reasonable, viewpoint-neutral requirements on student use of virtual backgrounds; and asking students to disable their camera. Faculty may also establish viewpoint-neutral rules to minimize distractions, such as requiring students to use only their real (or regularly-used) names as display names. Faculty, or the administrator of the virtual classroom if not the professor, may restrict the ability of unauthorized individuals to access and disrupt class sessions using the platform’s security settings, protecting their and their students’ right to a disruption-free environment. 

Faculty should recognize that students attending classes from their residences or remote locations may have limited control over their immediate physical surroundings, and should take reasonable steps to accommodate students in the manner that best approximates an in-person classroom experience. 

Students

Like faculty, students’ expressive rights in the virtual classroom should mirror those afforded to them when attending class on campus. Students must be given the opportunity to participate in online learning free from discrimination, harassment, and other undue interference with their educational pursuits. As is always the case, students must not be subjected to discrimination by their professors based on their viewpoint or opinion, which strikes at the core of both the First Amendment and liberal education. (Faculty may always grade students on their command of information relevant to the class, including statements of fact or belief that the student may not share.)

However, as is the case in traditional classrooms, students should recognize that their expressive rights are limited by their professor’s right to operate the classroom — online or off — in the manner that they see fit. Students’ in-class expression is subject to their professor’s academic freedom to keep discussions relevant to the topic at hand and the need to maintain a classroom conducive to learning.

Generally speaking, students do not have the right to repeatedly talk out of turn, interfere with someone else’s right to participate in discussion, distract the attention of others, or otherwise disrupt the educational mission of the virtual environment.

Administrators

University administrators should strive to facilitate online learning in a manner that protects the rights of both faculty and students to the greatest extent possible. Consistent with professors’ academic freedom, administrators should give due deference to the right of faculty members to operate the classroom in a manner they determine will best allow them to teach and students to learn. Administrators should be sensitive to the fact that the shift to teaching courses online in such a short time frame requires improvisation, compromise, and trial-and-error. 

Administrators should also be sensitive to students’ concerns regarding virtual classrooms, and they should strive to ensure that all students are given an equal opportunity to learn and participate. In the event of a conflict or dispute, administrators should seek to balance the interests at hand and arrive at an outcome that protects the rights of all parties while allowing online learning to continue.

The physical absence of campus constituents does not mean their involvement in community affairs should be cut short. Transparency, shared governance, and the involvement of students and faculty in academic and administrative decision-making are no less important to preserving student and faculty rights now than during normal campus operations. When considering a change to university practice or policy that would normally involve the input of faculty or students, administrators should make every effort to facilitate their participation remotely. 

If exigent policy changes are necessary, those changes should be considered on a temporary basis and re-examined upon return.