Distinguishing between Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression

Mark Ayyash

January 15, 2021

Where does the line between freedom of expression and academic freedom exist as far as faculty members are concerned?

The simple answer is that freedom of expression is not included in our collective agreement, whereas academic freedom is. The difficulty, of course, is how you distinguish between the two.

If a faculty member writes an opinion piece in a newspaper, is that protected under academic freedom or is that simply that faculty member’s right to practice freedom of expression in society? The answer, I think, is that it can be one or the other or both. So in short, the answer is “it depends”, but on what?   

I want to highlight specific words from Article 23 of our collective agreement: the first from 23.1, “The common good of society depends upon the search for knowledge and its free exposition.” The second from 23.4, “Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge.” The third from 23.5 “In exercising the freedom to comment and criticize, academic staff members have a corresponding obligation to use academic freedom in a responsible manner.”

These three elements, “the common good”, “an honest search for knowledge”, and “in a responsible manner” are critical to evaluating that line between freedom of expression and academic freedom, and prevent the political weaponization of academic freedom that we have witnessed in Alberta during the last few years.

In an academic world increasingly marked by careerism and the race for clicks and academic/intellectual “stardom”, it is critical to emphasize the common good that academic knowledge is supposed to serve.  For example, one might ask, if disseminated knowledge advances the well-being of people and the environment?  Does it portend a more healthy, equitable, just, and inclusive society?

One needs also to consider how the knowledge was produced. Was the process satisfactory of its field’s requirements for rigour, validity, and plausibility? Even if mistaken, or eventually proven unreliable knowledge, was the search itself honest? Carried out and disseminated in good and genuine faith? Or did the search pre-determine its outcome? When confronted with overwhelming evidence of its unreliability, invalidity, and implausibility, were these arguments ignored or inadequately addressed?

Finally, responsibility relates to the social and political context in which the knowledge was produced and disseminated. Whether we admit to it or not, academics are social and political beings. We exist in specific historical moments with unique possibilities and limitations, which shape the kinds of questions we are able to ask, others that we have not yet thought of, and most importantly, questions and answers that are deemed too dangerous in their challenge to the existing power structures. It is these latter questions that especially require the protections of academic freedom, and for which, in my view, the entire doctrine was established. Responsibility denotes the need to understand, contextualize, and critically reflect on the effects of our knowledge and its place in the world. Expression of one’s beliefs and opinions does not normally have to abide by this kind of responsibility.

While this is not an exhaustive list of considerations, I think that they can serve as guidance in our efforts to distinguish between academic freedom and freedom of expression in specific cases.