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59 Years of Commemorating Academic Freedom: The Legacy of ‘Sweezy v. New Hampshire’

There is no greater need for the protections afforded by the First Amendment than at colleges and universities across our nation. Faculty (and students) rely on academic freedom as an indispensable requisite for unfettered inquiry, research, and teaching. Any restriction on their efforts to guarantee the intellectual advancement of institutions of higher learning would jeopardize the future of our citizenry. Faculty and students alike must be allowed to facilitate novel discussions in an arena free from governmental intimidation or intrusion.

Fifty-nine years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), a landmark case on academic freedom. The Court’s plurality decision accepted the notion of academic freedom, recognizing its footing in constitutional law. Highlighting the idea that “scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust,” the plurality reasoned that faculty must be able to “feel free to inquire, to study and to evaluate” and “to gain new maturity and understanding” without fear of consequences.

Paul M. Sweezy, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, was interrogated by the New Hampshire Attorney General about his suspected affiliations with the Communist Party. After refusing to answer questions about his lectures and writings, the Attorney General filed a petition to compel Sweezy to respond. The district court granted the petition, but Sweezy refused to answer. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the petition unconstitutionally invaded Sweezy’s rights of expression and association. The Court weighed the governmental interest in intruding on Sweezy’s academic freedom against the “intellectual life of a university,” and it found the governmental interest was inadequate.

Justice Frankfurter’s concurrence is enshrined as influential language from the Court on higher education and academic freedom:

In a university knowledge is its own end, not merely a means to an end. A university ceases to be true to its own nature if it becomes the tool of Church or State or any sectional interest. A university is characterized by the spirit of free inquiry, its ideal being the ideal of Socrates -- ‘to follow the argument where it leads.’ This implies the right to examine, question, modify or reject traditional ideas and beliefs. Dogma and hypothesis are incompatible, and the concept of an immutable doctrine is repugnant to the spirit of a university. The concern of its scholars is not merely to add and revise facts in relation to an accepted framework, but to be ever examining and modifying the framework itself.

Sweezy’s legacy and impact on academic freedom remain active. Ten years after the plurality decision, the Supreme Court decided Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), which identified academic freedom as “a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” The Court reasoned, “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not just the teachers involved.”

Other lower court decisions succeeded Sweezy in that they protected faculty speech and pedagogical choices. These cases include Hardy v. Jefferson Community College (6th Cir. 2001), Sheldon v. Dhillon (N.D. Cal. 2009), and Demers v. Austin (9th Cir. 2014).

However, professors have continued to face consequences for speech within the walls of their classroom. In 2010,  an adjunct professor of religion at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), who taught courses in Catholicism, was fired for comments made about the Catholic faith. Last year, Louisiana State University (LSU) education professor Teresa Buchanan was fired for her alleged used of profane and sexual language during a lecture, meant to help prepare her students to be effective teachers.

Although the influential and promising language of Sweezy counsels in favor of pedagogical protection, the fight for academic freedom is not over. Restrictions on academic freedom are restrictions on intellectual engagement, and those who stand to suffer greatest will be the nation’s youth.

FIRE takes the position that faculty members should be afforded the right to teach, research, and study within their expertise without governmental or administrative interference.  

“The fundamental purpose of education is to confront uncomfortable ideas,” says FIRE Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko. “Professors should be free to present materials in the way that they believe will be pedagogically most effective.”

Today we celebrate fifty-nine years of Sweezy’s impact on academic freedom, and we hope to celebrate many more!

Vanessa Miller is a FIRE legal intern.

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