In the US the Salaita case (a recent discussion at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/13/world/middleeast/professors-angry-tweets-on-gaza-cost-him-a-job.html?_r=0 ) turned on Salaita’s tweets on Gaza, as a result of which his job offer from the University of Illinois was withdrawn. The situation was glossed by the University of Illinois as a debate between the principles of academic freedom and the demands of ‘civility’, where civility is taken to trump academic freedom (see http://illinois.edu/blog/view/1109/115906?count=1 ). There has subsequently been a turn among some of the participants of the debate to take ‘civility’ to be ‘nonsense’, and to promote abrasive criticism apparently in defence of academic freedom (see Brian Leiter’s remarks at http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/09/the-duty-of-harsh-criticism.html juxtaposed with his ongoing coverage of the Salaita casehttp://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/09/fairly-even-handed-ny-times-item-on-the-salaita-case.html ).
IN the UK, the Docherty case (constrained throughout by the confidentiality imposed by Warwick on Docherty himself) concerns the ongoing nine-month suspension of a vigorous critic of the UK higher education system. Thomas Docherty is subject to a disciplinary tribunal, not, according to the university, for his views on universities, but for his tone and stance within his Department (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/thomas-docherty-to-face-insubordination-charge-in-tribunal/2014711.article ). The disciplinary action by the university was apparently foreshadowed by a blog written by the University’s lawyers (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/lawyer-compares-suarez-bite-to-academic-outspoken-opinion/2014359.article and http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2014/07/04/academic-freedom-and-the-corporate-university/ ) as a sanction against ‘insubordination’. There are many other such cases, documented daily. This all seems to be the most horrible mess, and badly to need rethinking.
The principles of academic freedom (see this 1940 US formula, since modified but in its central claims unchanged: http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure ) suppose that academic inquiry has no boundaries. If academic institutions exist for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, whether alone, or with colleagues, or with students, such inquiry does not say in advance what may or may not be thought, or considered or assumed or believed. Socrates’ injunction to follow the argument where it leads is surely the right one: inquiry is not constrained by canons of what can or cannot be said or thought. This is true, at whatever level the inquiry occurs. So an inquiry into inquiry is similarly unconstrained. Equally, an inquiry into how inquiry should be institutionalized is free in the same way. The context of inquiry, that is, is a suitable topic for inquiry too – the openness runs across fields and up the orders, to include, of course, the inquiry into academic freedom itself.
If that is right, then the basis of academic freedom is internal to the nature of academic business. Academic freedom, that is, is an epistemic condition on thought where it occurs in an academic context – that it should be unbounded and untrammelled (this does not, of course, imply that there are obligations on others to fund any thought at all). If that is right in turn, then academic freedom is in the first instance an epistemic condition, rather than a moral one: we find its basis by thinking, not about Kant or Mill (despite the nice arguments here http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/how-academia-traded-freedom-for-justice/14847#.VBcYHVZ5CaB ), but about the nature of thought. It is – one might say – a norm of thought that it should thus be free.
But here there is an immediate difficulty. This sense of ‘free’ is nothing like the sense in which we might demand ‘free speech’ as a right, or in the sense supported by the US First Amendment. The latter sense is from the very outset moral or political. It is a context where we may indeed appeal to Kant on autonomy or Mill on liberty: we take it as fundamental to our political liberty that we may say what we wish without hindrance. But since freedom of speech is a moral and political issue, from the outset, there are bound to be other moral claims which may limit it – for example, the free speaking of racist sentiments is morally deplorable; and the moral balance between the right to say what one wants and the right of others to be regarded as equal is not obviously titled in favour of freedom and against equality. Because freedom of speech is moral, its limitations are moral too.
Academic freedom, however, is freedom of a different kind – it is a kind of epistemic freedom. Suppose then that an institution seeks to curtail that – to curtail, that is to say, the activity of an academic to follow the argument where it leads. This move by the institution is, I suggest, pragmatically incoherent. If the institution exists to promote thought (of course that is up for grabs too these days – but for the moment let us imagine an institution that exists to promote the search for, and the spread of, knowledge and understanding) then to seek at the same time to impose boundaries on thought, is in a formal sense, absurd.
Nonetheless, academic freedom is exercised in speech. It falls also, then, under the right to freedom of speech; but it is not merely a contextual variant of freedom of speech. What academics may say in private is supported by the principle of free speech, and limited by the constraints on that, whether they be legal or moral. What they say qua academics is governed by academic freedom, and it relies on thinking about thought as functioning without boundaries.
What are we to say, then, of civility? Civility is, we might think, a moral matter (and not a matter of mere manners). What is more, civility is a moral aspiration, not, as it were, a sine qua non of any moral activity: we seek to be civil and thoughtful and polite and sincere –we backslide, alas, all the time (I speak for myself, at least), but we may keep on trying. As a moral aspiration this is not unconditional; it does not, that is, automatically trump other moral imperatives. Nor does it trump imperatives that come, as I suggested, from the nature of thought -- although both in morals and in thought civility may well need to be taken seriously. Civility is an important aspiration in the context of inquiry that is free in the sense I outlined. For free inquiry occurs between and among people; and people are over and over affected not only by the content of what is said, or even the general import of what is said, but also by its manner and its tone. Loud and fierce declarations of opinion often force an interlocutor to be silent, or to be afraid; in such cases civility is clearly conducive to an effective and productive exchange of ideas. Conversely, it can happen that an interlocutor refuses to listen (this, perhaps, is what we see most often in the cases where institutional force majeure is wielded); and on such occasions incivility may well be excusable, or even required. These issues must be case by case (such is the way of complex moral requirements). But perhaps in general we might think that free inquiry is promoted when each party keeps their temper, minds their language, and tries to attend to the other point of view (I give you the case of Socrates, again – it is a mark of how hard civility is to achieve, or even to believe in, that his persistent good temper and good manners, in the face of the hemlock, invites first-time readers to construe what he says as ‘irony’).
But whatever the case, the issue of civility is orthogonal to the epistemic demand of freedom. If we make the mistake that they are converses, then some nasty consequences follow. In the present discussion of the Salaita case, some have taken there to be a choice between academic freedom and civility, and to think that in that case we need to ensure incivility in order to maintain academic freedom. Others have thought and said that civility is somehow a soft-hearted muffler of proper intellectual integrity, and should be thrown off in favour of its alternative. But this is to buy into the mistake already perpetrated by the arguments of the University of Illinois and others. Academic freedom is not the alternative to civility. Academic freedom is the sine qua non of academic thought; civility helps it along.