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Cal State faculty stand up for academic freedom and free speech 

speaker giving presentation in lecture hall at university workshop

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Codi Lazar, an associate professor of geological sciences at California State University, San Bernardino, has been concerned for some time about the trend toward censorship in higher education. 

The state of academic freedom and free speech on college and university campuses is, indeed, unsettling. FIRE’s report, “The Academic Mind in 2022: What Faculty Think About Free Expression and Academic Freedom on Campus,” found that 40% of liberal faculty are afraid of losing their jobs or reputations due to their speech and 2 in 5 faculty self-censor more now than they did in 2020. 

In an interview with FIRE, Lazar described the struggle for academic freedom and free speech on campus as “a battle between two intellectual spheres at the university” — one which values “free inquiry, open debate, open conversations, [and] free speech” versus one which teaches “a particular brand of political activism” and suppresses free speech and open inquiry when they are deemed harmful. 

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Lazar believes that once a school’s administration decides that it is the role of the university to protect people from harmful words, it is no longer doing the work of a university. He pointed out that such policing on the administrative level “means that the universities are [becoming] places where discourse is not welcome on certain [topics]” and that those who disagree with mainstream views regarding these topics are fundamentally bad people. 

“I don’t think anyone should be in charge [of what views people can express],” Lazar said. “That’s not a university anymore.”

“It got to the point where I felt like I had to do something.” And he did. 

In fall 2021, Lazar researched public lists of faculty who are members of, or signed open letters for, organizations like Heterodox Academy and the Independent Institute, and he reached out to professors on those lists within the California State University system, the largest four-year university system in the country. He described to them his concern that faculty members feel they can’t speak up about particular topics and he expressed his desire to connect with like-minded faculty in the Cal State system to fight back against this trend. 

He received an enthusiastic response, and the group’s first meeting was a great success. About their first Zoom call, Lazar said, “For the first time, most people there were in a room full of people where they could really say what was on their mind about certain things.” 

During the winter and spring semesters of 2022, the group put together a systemwide open letter in support of academic freedom, which was published in June 2022. It has garnered more than 240 signatures from faculty across the Cal State system. 

Lazar hopes that C-FAF can serve as a model and an inspiration for other faculty in the United States who are concerned about the state of free speech and academic freedom on their campuses and are looking for ways to fight censorship. 

By the time the letter was published, this group had grown into a solid body of faculty who met regularly to discuss academic freedom at Cal State schools. Their commitment inspired Lazar to form a “steering committee” with five other faculty, who named the group the CSU Faculty for Academic Freedom, or C-FAF.

Lazar says that his involvement in C-FAF has inspired him to voice his opinions. Just knowing that there are other faculty within the Cal State system who staunchly support free speech and academic freedom has enabled him not to feel alone and to express his ideas to his colleagues, even when he disagrees with them. 

“The whole experience has really empowered me to start speaking my mind,” Lazar said. “I realized that [our goal] is not just to defend academic freedom but [to] set it up psychologically so that we can practice academic freedom.”

He talked about conversations he’s had with his colleagues who have described to him their reluctance to express disagreement with school policy or with mainstream opinions about other hot-button issues. That kind of culture of self-censorship, he said, is “not sustainable for a university.” 

Close-up view of the California State flag waving in the wind

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“So if there’s one thing that we can do,” Lazar explained, “it’s just connecting with people, saying it’s okay to say what’s on your mind.”

C-FAF’s steering committee has a number of goals, including:

  • Send C-FAF’s open letter to the search committee for the new chancellor of Cal State, as well as to provosts and presidents on campuses across the system. C-FAF hopes that some of these campus leaders will respond with public affirmations of academic freedom and free speech. 
  • Establish academic freedom and expression committees on each Cal State campus and, ideally, within the Chancellor’s Office for CSU in order to protect these values across the Cal State system. 
  • Provide a space for, and a network of, members of the Cal State community who are passionate about promoting academic freedom and intellectual diversity in the CSU system. 

Ultimately, Lazar hopes that C-FAF can serve as a model and an inspiration for other faculty in the United States who are concerned about the state of free speech and academic freedom on their campuses and are looking for ways to fight censorship. 

“I hope that people self-organize on campuses to help make sure that their voices are heard,” Lazar said. “It feels good to connect people — there are people out there, and it’s a wonderful feeling emailing someone you’ve never met before and their response is, ‘I can’t express how happy I am to hear from you.’”

Check out C-FAF’s website to read more about the group and all of their current plans

FIRE is hosting a webinar about academic freedom on June 7! Codi Lazar will be on the panel, along with Executive Director of the Council of Academic Freedom at Harvard Flynn Cratty, associate professor of history at Carleton College Amna Khalid, and FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. Register here.

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