FIRE submission cited in timely U.N. report defending academic freedom

October 19, 2020

In a new report, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur addresses the topic of academic freedom. The report — written by David Kaye, the outgoing Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression — is a welcome appeal for the protection of academic freedom around the world. 

FIRE contributed to the call for submissions for the report in April, and we’re pleased to see that our concerns about the state of academic freedom in the United States are cited in the final report. FIRE’s comments, as well as those from groups like Scholars at Risk and Article 19 Brazil, are available, along with the full report, and have been summarized as supplementary material on the Special Rapporteur’s website.

The report explains the legal underpinnings of academic freedom, addresses the threats it faces across the globe from governments, the public, and within the academy, and offers recommendations for its protection. Defining the term, the Special Rapporteur writes:

In short, academic freedom should be understood to include the freedom of individuals, as members of academic communities (e.g., faculty, students, staff, scholars, administrators and community participants) or in their own pursuits, to conduct activities involving the discovery and transmission of information and ideas, and to do so with the full protection of human rights law. 

Notably, the Special Rapporteur advises that universities “adopt and enforce policies that ensure the protection of the free expression rights of the members of their communities, resisting official or social pressure and promising human rights compliance institutionally.”

In a section detailing threats to academic freedom, the report notes that “[t]hreats to academic freedom are often based on, among other things, political, financial, ideological, and/or social and cultural pressure.” It then addresses campaigns against academics in countries like Hungary and Turkey, and discusses threats in the United States, citing FIRE:

The willingness of universities to submit to public pressure can erode academic freedom and freedom of expression. In the United States of America, pressure from the public or from students has led to disciplinary reviews of academics, and in some instances, has even resulted in them being barred from campus. Broadly speaking, such a dynamic may lead to a culture of repression and self-censorship, where restrictive measures against academic staff are guided by outside pressure rather than academic achievements and activities. In other States, there is evidence that students themselves are recruited to become a source of threat to academics owing to their ability and, in some cases, willingness to report academics who discuss ideas that are deemed unacceptable.

This is a concern FIRE raised in our submission, which highlighted cases that may be familiar to readers, like the faculty punishments at the University of Kansas, Harvard University, Kirkwood Community College, and Babson College. As we explained, universities bound by the First Amendment or their stated commitments to free expression have frequently abandoned those obligations when pressured by students, legislators, or aggrieved members of the public to punish controversial faculty speech.

The report goes on to offer a number of recommendations and warns that “threats to academic freedom – threats to questioning – must be confronted, whether the threat derives from State behaviour or social pressure.” 

The report recommends that governments “[a]void[] the use of tools of coercion, such as funding cuts, prosecution or denial of tax benefits, in order to pressure academic institutions to carry out or to avoid certain kinds of research” and “[r]efrain[] from penalizing academic institutions and members of academic communities for their extramural activities.”

The report also advises that academic institutions, the “places to educate the coming generations of thinkers, leaders and bureaucratic and business elites among others,” do the following:

(a) Respect the rights of all members of their communities, including faculty, students, researchers, staff, administrators and outsiders who participate in academic pursuits. That respect must include the right of all members to freedom of opinion and expression, including peaceful protest on academic premises;

(b) Ensure that members of academic communities have protection against coercion by third parties, whether the State or groups in society. This requires, in particular, institutions to stand up for members of their communities who face attack or restriction owing to the exercise of their academic freedom.

These are vital recommendations, and U.S. universities would be well served by following them for two reasons: 1) their communities function best when members can study, teach, and debate with the knowledge that their rights are protected and 2) universities protect themselves from legal repercussions when they abide by their First Amendment and/or contractual obligations to protect academic freedom and free expression.

Please read the full report for a better understanding of the protections of, and threats to, academic freedom. FIRE thanks the Special Rapporteur’s office for their work on this important topic, especially as new threats to global academic freedom have materialized during the COVID-19 pandemic. We intend to share the Special Rapporteur’s report with universities in the United States and encourage them to abide by its recommendations for defending their communities’ rights.

Read the report below:

Report-of-the-Special-Rapporteur-on-the-promotion-and-protection-of-the-right-to-freedom-of-opinion-and-expression-David-Kaye