The protests of summer 2020 led to long-overdue reassessments of the legacy of racism and white supremacy in both American academe and cultural life more generally. But while universities have been willing to rename some buildings and schools or grapple with their role in the slave trade, no one has yet asked the most uncomfortable question: Does academic freedom extend to racist professors?
It's Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022) considers the ideal of academic freedom in the wake of the activism inspired by outrageous police brutality, white supremacy, and the #MeToo movement. Arguing that academic freedom must be rigorously distinguished from freedom of speech, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth take aim at explicit defenses of colonialism and theories of white supremacy—theories that have no intellectual legitimacy whatsoever. Approaching this question from two angles—one, the question of when a professor's intramural or extramural speech calls into question his or her fitness to serve, and two, the question of how to manage the simmering tension between the academic freedom of faculty and the antidiscrimination initiatives of campus offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion—they argue that the democracy-destroying potential of social media makes it very difficult to uphold the traditional liberal view that the best remedy for hate speech is more speech.
In recent years, those with traditional liberal ideals have had very limited effectiveness in responding to the resurgence of white supremacism in American life. It is time, Bérubé and Ruth write, to ask whether that resurgence requires us to rethink the parameters and practices of academic freedom. Touching as well on contingent faculty, whose speech is often inadequately protected, It's Not Free Speech insists that we reimagine shared governance to augment both academic freedom and antidiscrimination initiatives on campuses.
Michael Bérubé (interviewed here) is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University; Jennifer Ruth is a professor of film at Portland State University. Both have served in various roles within the American Association of University Professors, and also coauthored The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (2015).
Catriona Gold is a PhD candidate in Geography at University College London, researching security and mobility in the 20-21st century United States. Her current work concerns the US Passport Office's role in the Cold War. She can be reached by email or on Twitter.
Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices