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Academic Freedom: The Grounds for Tolerating Abuses


We are all familiar - indeed, all too familiar - with abuses of academic freedom.

Robert P. George

We are all familiar indeed, all too familiar with abuses of academic freedom. Consider, for example, the following two cases.

A controversy currently raging in this city of controversies concerns a City University of New York (CUNY) professor named Leonard Jeffries whose lectures frequently degenerate into racist and anti-Semitic diatribes. Professor Jeffries, who is black, asserts that whites are ice people who are prone to cruelty and violence, while blacks are sun people who are inclined to compassion and peace. He attributes the racial superiority of blacks to whites to the presence in black skin of the pigment melanin. Jeffries also claims that the slave trade was financed by Jews and alleges that a financial system of destruction of black people has been put into place as part of a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood [by] people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani. [1] The publication of these remarks has produced a chorus of demands that CUNY dismiss or at least discipline Jeffries. The professor and his supporters, however, maintain that he enjoys a moral and legal immunity from such actions as a matter of academic freedom.

In the early 1980s, a controversy erupted in Catholic circles when it was reported that George N. Gordon, the Chairman of the Communications Department at Fordham University, was contributing opinion pieces to an obscene (and viciously anti-Catholic) weekly called Screw magazine. (In those days, it was still unclear whether a member of the faculty could get away with this sort of thing at an ostensibly Catholic institution. The situation has since been clarified.) In any event, when Fordhams President was pressed to take action to combat the scandal of having a member of its faculty writing in Screw, he observed that Cordons writings could and would be defended as a right of academic freedom. [2]

Now, when I cite the cases of Jeffries and Cordon as abuses of academic freedom, I do not mean to assert that their legal and moral claims to immunity from disciplinary action on grounds of academic freedom are invalid. To render such a judgment, I would need more detailed information about the cases than is currently in my possession. I am interested in the cases of Jeffries and Cordon because they clearly involve abuses of academic freedom even if their claims to immunity from disciplinary action on grounds of academic freedom turn out to be valid.

I am considering here a certain possibility that will perhaps strike the reader as paradoxical. By describing the activities of Jeffries and Cordon as abuses, I am suggesting that these activities are wrong. But if it is wrong for Jeffries to teach bigotry and for Cordon to publish in Screw, then Jeffries has no right to teach bigotry and Cordon has no right to publish in Screw. If the professors in question have no right to do what they have done, then how can their activities be subjects of valid claims to immunity from disciplinary action on grounds of academic freedom? How can they have a right not to be disciplined for doing things that they have no right to do? Does the right to academic freedom include rights to do wrongs?

Let me contrast two very different understandings of the value of academic freedom. Each of these understandings is part of a broader understanding of political morality and the value of freedom. On either understanding, there will sometimes be conclusive reasons for tolerating what I have called abuses of academic and other freedoms. The moral grounds of such toleration, however, differ sharply, reflecting the profound difference between the two understandings regarding the value of freedom.

According to one understanding, the value of academic freedom, and more generally of freedom of speech, is in the self-expression of feelings and opinions. Proponents of this understanding claim that people do indeed have certain moral rights to do moral wrongs. It is wrong, they say, for the state to interfere with or punish free expression, or for the university to prevent or discipline faculty for abuses of academic freedom, because to do so is to violate a right to free expression that holds even where ones act of expression is morally wrong. The moral ground of the obligation of the state or of university authorities not to act against the speaker is precisely the speakers moral right to express what he feels or believes even where, from the moral point of view, that expression of feeling or opinion is wrong. [3]

This view of freedom is associated with contemporary antiperfectionist [4] liberalism and informs the approach to these matters typically taken by the American Civil Liberties Union and like-minded advocacy groups. Proponents of this view might apply it to the Jeffries case as follows: Leonard Jeffries is morally wrong to preach racial hatred and anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, he has a moral right to express himself as he pleases, even where what he says is wrong and even where he is morally wrong to say it. Because Jeffries has this right, it would be wrong for CUNY to take action against him. A liberal Catholic might offer a similar analysis of the Cordon case: George Cordon was wrong to write for Screw magazine. Still, he has a right to express himself in the forum of his choice, even where his choice of forum is immoral. Because it would be a violation of this right for Fordham to take action against him, the President of Fordham was right to abstain from taking action.

Now for the alternative understanding. According to this understanding, the value of academic freedom, and more generally freedom of speech, [5] is in the pursuit of truth. The freedom to inquire, speak, publish, debate, and so forth is valuable as a means or condition for the creation and authentic appropriation of knowledge, for its preservation, and for its transmission to others. Proponents of this understanding share with those who hold the first understanding the view that that valuable academic freedom requires, within limits, the creation of immunities from constraints and sanctions for the expression of opinion. And they recognize that the immunities that are essential to the creation and maintenance of an environment or milieu of freedom in which the truth can be vigorously pursued will be subject to abuse. The moral ground of the toleration of abuses, however, is not in a putative right of the abuser to self-expression. Rather, toleration of abuse has a point, and is required, only in those circumstances in which prudence dictates restraint from interference with professorial wrongdoing for the sake of preserving a milieu that encourages the vigorous and unabashed pursuit of truth. Here the reader may perceive another paradox. How can concern for the truth provide the ground for tolerating the expression and dissemination of falsehood? Indeed, doesnt concern for the truth provide a conclusive reason to prevent the expression and dissemination of untruth? If the value of academic freedom and freedom of speech is grounded in the intrinsic value of truth, why not take the view that the scope of academic freedom and freedom of speech is precisely and only the freedom to say and teach what is.

Why accord error any rights? For the truth to be humanly valuable, it must be authentically appropriated by human beings. The authentic appropriation of truth and its secure contemplation require vital inquiry and reflection, genuine understanding and judgment. The freedom necessary for the authentic pursuit of truth and its real appropriation entails the freedom to get it wrong. The milieu of freedom necessary for vigorous inquiry and debate requires a measure of immunity from interference with teaching and publication that simply cannot be rendered inconsistent with the possibility of abuse. The spirit of inquiry that is essential to the authentic appropriation of truth is easily suffocated where there is no freedom. Thus, authorities in academic institutions and elsewhere who love truth will, precisely for the sake of truth, preserve and protect freedom of inquiry even at the price of tolerating error and abuse. Such authorities recognize that error and abuse are truly lesser evils, lesser threats to truth, than the inauthenticity and corruption that flourish in the absence of freedom and that gravely impede the disinterested pursuit of truth and jeopardize its secure possession by scholars and students.

Is this to suggest that the alternative view let us call it the correct view also shares with the liberal view of academic freedom belief in moral rights to do moral wrongs? No. The correct view understands the duty to tolerate those abuses that should be tolerated as grounded not in the rights of the abuser but rather in the obligation to maintain a milieu of freedom on which scholars of goodwill can rely (and that rascals will, alas, exploit) for the sake of the common good of the academic community in the pursuit and secure enjoyment of truth. Within limits, error and even abuse must be tolerated precisely for the sake of the common good of truth.

The rights of a Leonard Jeffries or a George Gordon, if their claims to immunity on the ground of academic freedom are valid, are not, under the correct view, a ground of the immunities they claim. Rather, these immunities, considered from the claimants point of view (and thus expressible in the language of rights), are rights that shadow duties grounded independently in prudential judgments that the common good of the academic community of CUNY or Fordham is served best, here and now at least, by refraining from disciplinary actions that are likely to damage the common interest of members of the university in a milieu of freedom appropriate to truth-seeking. If on this occasion CUNY should tolerate the bigotry of Leonard Jeffries or Fordham should tolerate the obscenity of George Gordon, it is not because their rights to academic freedom include the rights to preach bigotry or publish in obscene magazines; and if, contrary to the demands of prudence (let us suppose), the university authorities take action against a Jeffries or Gordon, the wrong done consists not in a violation of individual rights as such but in the damaging of a community interest in academic freedom. If there is injustice in the taking of such action, Jeffries and Gordon are not its victims.

Of course, advocates of the liberal view will be quick to point out that their theory will more sharply and securely limit the authority of officials to interfere with or punish abuses of academic freedom or freedom of speech. Their theory comes nearer to an absolutism of free speech and academic freedom than does the alternative theory. Advocates of the correct understanding, however, will see no reason to count this observation as a point against them. They will argue that their theory grounds the value of academic freedom in an intelligible human good, for example, truth, rather than in a mere human capacity, for example, self-expression, which is valuable when exercised well and valueless or worse when exercised badly. [6] And they will observe that their approach avoids the extravagant hypothesis that people sometimes have amoral right to do moral wrong.

The subject of these brief reflections has been academic freedom, its ground and the ground for sometimes tolerating abuses. I have argued that the correct view of the matter understands academic freedom as a value that serves the good of truth. The establishment and maintenance of a milieu conducive to the vigorous pursuit of truth and its secure contemplation require academic freedom, but academic freedom is not all that is required. An atmosphere properly conducive to truth-seeking must be imbued by a love of the truth not just as an instrumental good but also as something worthwhile for its own sake, as an intrinsic and irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment. The greatest danger to truth-seeking on many campuses today is posed by the phenomenon of political correctness, which not only establishes an orthodoxy in discussions in which orthodoxy has no place but also, more insidiously, treats knowledge as a mere instrumental good to be manipulated in the service of political ends.

Finally, I would like to offer a word about Catholic universities. In such universities, there should be a special dedication to truth as a human good and a divine gift. The atmosphere of Catholic institutions should be imbued above all with a desire to know the truth about God. Even with respect to theological inquiry, however, a due regard for academic freedom will sometimes require the prudent toleration of abuses. Still, there are limits to what may legitimately be counted as Catholic theology, and these limits are established by the authoritative teachings of the Magisterium. From the point of view of the Catholic Faith, these are truths we firmly possess. The role of the theologian, as I understand it, is to explain, illuminate, and develop the implications of these truths in the service of the Church. A milieu conducive to the fulfillment of these responsibilities by theologians functioning as scholars and teachers will, to be sure, require academic freedom; it will also crucially depend, however, on the prevalence of valid assumptions as to the authoritative source of truths of Faith without which the integrity of Catholic theology is hopelessly compromised.


  1. New York Times, Aug. 7, 1991, p. B1. Back to text.
  2. National Review, Sept. 20, 1985, p. 9. Back to text.
  3. This view is ably defended by Jeremy Waldron in A Right to Do Wrong, Ethics 92 (1981): 21-39. It is criticized with equal skill by William Galston in On the Alleged Right to Do Wrong: A Reply to Waldron, Ethics 93 (1983): pp. 320-24. Back to text.
  4. Antiperfectionism in legal and political philosophy is the view that governments have an obligation to remain neutral on the controversial question of what counts as a morally good life. Influential antiperfectionist liberal theories have been adumbrated in contemporary philosophy by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971) and Ronald Dworkin in A Matter of Principle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985). For powerful criticisms of antiperfectionism, see John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, i98o), and Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Back to text.
  5. The eminent political theorist Harvey Mansfield, Jr. distinguishes more sharply than I think is warranted between free speech, whose purpose, he says, is to make democratic government possible, and academic freedom, whose purpose is to further inquiry. Political Correctness and the Suicide of the Intellect, The Heritage Lectures 337 (1991). p. 4. Free speech is, to be sure, valuable as a means to good government; but it is also valuable as a condition for the cooperative pursuit, discovery, and transmission of truth. Back to text.
  6. In this respect, self-expression is like autonomy, that is, it is valuable when exercised for morally good ends, but valueless (or worse) when exercised immorally. On the conditional value of autonomy, see Raz, The Morality of Freedom, pp. 381 and 411. Back to text.

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George, Robert A. Academic Freedom: The Grounds for Tolerating Abuses. In The Mind and Heart of the Church 4 (1991): 43-50.

Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute.

The Author

George7Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. George has been called America's "most influential conservative Christian thinker." He is a co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life and the author of Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays,Conscience and Its Enemies, The Clash of Orthodoxies, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality and In Defense of Natural Law. He is the editor of The Autonomy of Law: Essays on Legal Positivism, Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality,The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals, and Constitutional Politics: Essays on Constitution Making, Maintenance, and Change. Robert George is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1991 Ignatius Press

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