The Limits of Academic Freedom

Updated: Nov 2, 2016

Hashtag: #DelhiDecides

The Limits of Academic Freedom

School as Democratic Institutions

A democratic society is one ruled by the people. Therefore, the people decide who will head their government such as the #DelhiDecides in India and can freely express their sentiments or criticism against anyone in the public service. In practice, this particular power in some country is limited to influential democratic institutions such as schools where academics cannot express their opinion on social issues regardless of their academic freedom.

Institutions supporting democratic way of life are organizations that promote good governance, rule of law, human rights, preservation of the environment, education, and so on. News Media is a democratic institution that often elicits accountability from state actors; promote peace and human rights. Academic institutions, on the other hand, are moral and democratic as they developed students’ moral and civil character, and promote a sense of community and participation in democratic processes. In other words, news media and schools have the power to influence and modify a social order.

Some academics are aware of their influence and exercise their freedom as citizens of the state to express their thoughts and opinions in and out of school. For instance, social media users are freely giving their opinions regarding the election in India where #DelhiDecides. Some of them were academics expressing their thoughts on political issues, criticizing candidates, and policies of the incumbent government. These practices are actually encouraged by the institutions as concerned citizens contributing to public debate. However, they should make it clear that their views are not of the institution but their own.


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Academic freedom, therefore, is merely a guarantee that academics are free to research and published papers on issues they find disturbing without government intervention. It is not about resistance but the use of freedom for the public good through research, dissemination of knowledge, and promotion of independent thinking and expression within the academic atmosphere.

Overlapping Rights and Politically Motivated Restrictions

The confusion in academic freedom, particularly in higher education, is in the overlapping scope of academic democracy and academic freedom. For instance, the rights specified in the academic democracy that says “within academic sphere” limit the rights provided by academic freedom of free expression and academic participation in activities that can help expands the frontiers of knowledge. In other words, contrary to belief, they can freely express their opinion but on the institution or the system in which they work and nothing more.

However, if one would look closely on the recommended universal application of academic freedom, it will be quite clear that academics have the right to participate and contribute to social change. The UNESCO recommendation clearly states that academics should enjoy civil and political liberties and these include freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly, association, and the right to contribute to social change. Specifically, academics can express their opinion on state policies and issues particularly those affecting the quality of education.

The extent of academic freedom, therefore, depends on state policies that are often highly political. In fact, the freedom of expression and association in academic sphere are restricted along with terms commonly used by some governments to imply severity of violation and punishment. These include suppressing freedom of expression for “public safety”, a political act “necessary in a democratic society”, and it is “prescribed by law” so do not talk against your government. Instead of letting academic intellectuals share their expertise as valued citizens of the nation, the government created a climate of fear.

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