I believe Tenure offers strong protections for speech in the United States (and I think Canada as well). As I understand, the UK and Europe don't have "tenure" but have something very similar, where a position is made permanent, typically after a 5-year review (as with tenure).

However, it seems that these permanent positions do not have quite as much job security as tenure provides in the US, based on answers to this question: What is the difference between permanent faculty positions in the UK and tenured faculty positions in the US/Canada?.

My question is specifically about the free speech protections of tenure. Are similar protections common in Europe/UK/Canada?

EtA: I was conflating academic freedom and free speech, as noted by other users. However, I've also found this article that says: "In cases brought by professors in North Carolina and Washington, federal courts have given greater free speech protection to college faculty than ordinary government employees would enjoy." Note that this only applies to public universities.

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    Note also that free speech doesn't mean that one can utter whatever one has in mind and get away with it, as some seem to think way too frequently. Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 0:39
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    To conclude from the UK to the whole of Europe is rather uninformed. E.g. in Germany, professors are civil servants who cannot get kicked out except for serious criminal offenses (>= 1 year sentence), and traditionally obtain this status immediately.
    – user151413
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 2:06
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    This issue is always confusing because general employment law protects employees to a much greater extent in Europe than in the US. In most of Europe, a company cannot dismiss a permanent employee without giving a legitimate reason, holding an unpopular opinion is not a legitimate reason, and an attempt to give some other reason as a pretext can be challenged by the employee. In the US, a company can dismiss a permanent employee at any time for any reason or no reason, except that the reason cannot be the employee's race, gender, religion, or a number of other similar statuses. Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 4:17
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    A senior American mathematician (whose anonymity I shall preserve) who was for a time a maitre des conferences in France put it this way: "In France, even the janitor has tenure." Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 4:22
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    " it seems that these permanent positions do not have quite as much job security as tenure provides in the US". You realize that most of Europe already comes with quite a high level of job security? At-will-employment is an US thing.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 8:58

3 Answers 3


Tenure does not protect free speech, but academic freedoms

Professors can be fired for free speech issues separately. Tenure in the U.S. system means you've completed a tenure package and been awarded tenure by a panel of tenured professors.

Tenure isn't a free pass to do whatever you want. It just means as long as you continue doing your job (teaching + research), you won't be fired. Not getting tenure usually means leaving the university.

There are A LOT of advantages to Tenure (see this question). It generally means your job is secure, and you have much more freedom to research things others might see as silly or moonshot ideas that may not pan-out for a while.

Free speech isn't protected by tenure. The university may be more tolerant of a tenured professor stating an unpopular view, but that has nothing to do with academic freedom. A quick google search will show you if a tenured professor causes enough problems they will be fired.

relevant XKCD enter image description here

EDIT in response to comments

It's uncommon to fire a tenured professor, but it does happen. Usually after repeated warnings or obvious abuse of power.

Selman Akbulut was fired from MSU for refusing to teach an undergrad class.

Rick Mehta was fired for controversial statements.

Denis Rancourt was fired for teaching his political views instead of physics.

All were found in a few minutes using Google.

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    "A quick google search will show you if a tenured professor causes enough problems they will be fired." Nope. I looked at all ~30 professors who were "canceled" according to this website: canceledpeople.com/cancelations. Only one professor with tenure was fired, Rick Mehta. And according to the linked article, "The Acadia University Faculty Association announced last week that it plans to pursue arbitration on Mehta’s behalf". The example you gave is of an adjunct professor, as are the majority of examples of professors listed on the canceledpeople website. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 1:57
  • "It generally means your job is secure" Obligatory: Tenure is useless if your university is unable to pay you. This is increasingly common. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 10:36
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    Some of your examples are just people refusing to do their jobs. Tenure doesn't protect you in such cases. And free speech guarantees, alone, don't protect you from being fired (in US). They keep you out of jail, of course. And, harassment and privacy violations are grounds for dismissal in most cases.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 13:43

"In France, even the janitor has tenure."

This quote is from an American mathematician (born/raised in US) who was a maitre des conferences in France earlier in his career.

In most of Europe, it is illegal to dismiss an employee without a legitimate reason, the employee's views on matters irrelevant to job performance is not a legitimate reason, and any attempts to dismiss an employee on some pretext can and will be challenged before some administrative body. This means all employees, not just professors, enjoy most of the protections that come under the umbrella of ``academic freedom'' in the US.


Free Speech and Academic Freedom are two separate things. The first is a legal concept and the second, while there may be laws in some places, it is usually more of a contractual matter.

I can't comment on the relative balance between Europe and the US (or other places), but the purposes of the two are quite distinct, philosophically. The first is a political matter, encouraging a robust "marketplace" of ideas in which, hopefully, the best ideas come to the fore and drive policy, while still permitting dissent. This is, or should be, the right of every person, regardless of their political system. Sadly it is not universally recognized.

Academic Freedom, on the other hand, is intended to permit certain academics to pursue ideas, even unpopular ones, in a research and teaching context without (much) interference from authorities. But the "authorities" are usually those within the academy, not the wider public. It is therefore supposed to permit the development of ideas, rather than just their dissemination. There may not be a lot of controversy about most mathematics, but there is in the world of philosophy, social science, and other, more human, domains. There are some people who would much rather that some ideas not be developed or even considered. Academic freedom works in this space, if imperfectly.

However, there are abuses of both. The reference article on academic freedom notes a few of the cases in which academic freedom protected statements that were not really germane to the research of the speaker. Both William Shockley and R. L. Moore were noted racists who were permitted to continue work while espousing some pretty evil ideas. But part of that was just that their professional work was exceptional and people didn't want to interfere with it.

But the opposite thing has also happened. The mathematician Ed Dubinsky was fired from a tenured slot at Tulane (about 1969) for speaking out against the Vietnam War. It caused a stink in the wider mathematical circles and he had a lot of help to continue his career. That was a free speech issue, however, but tenure and academic freedom didn't provide any protection whatever.

The world is messy. Protections are imperfect.

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