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Academia values academic freedom. However, there may be some practical limitations on academic freedom. What repercussions might an academic face for voicing unpopular or offensive views in the name of academic freedom?

For example, how might a professor's academic reputation be impacted by publicly expressing views that support dictatorships (and other type of politicians) and their established crimes and violation of human rights?

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    Thanks to the whole Academia crew for taking care of this question, from start to finish. You guys rock! – eykanal Apr 22 '13 at 12:51
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    Note that (a) the term "Academic freedom" refers to a number of ideas (teaching, research directions, acceptance of ideologies), and (b) in practice, the freedom isn't that broad at all. – eykanal Apr 22 '13 at 12:53
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    As an example, you could read about the Ward Churchill affair. – Nate Eldredge Apr 22 '13 at 14:34
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    All three answers were downvoted, with no comment below them. Maybe the people who voted them down could explain their reason, so the posts can be improved? – F'x Apr 23 '13 at 10:20
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    You have currently the case of Prof. Salaita as another proof that you may be punished for expressing personal views on a delicate topic outside academia. – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 17:25
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First, academic freedom as it is commonly understood does not refer to one's views and publicly stated opinions, but to the freedom in which they conduct teaching in the classroom. The reference in US is the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure stating that

Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject

But as a rule, academics do not get special treatment outside of the classroom with regards to freedom of speech. It's certainly not the case in the US, and I am not aware of any other country where it might be the case.

Now, regarding the impact of unpopular or offensive views on reputation, it will heavily depend on your colleagues! I personally find that, while freedom of speech is highly valued in academic circles in general, Academia as a system is a rather conservative institution and I suspect you would not find much more sympathy for extreme views than in any other workplace.


NB: Academic freedom is also used to refer to a US jurisprudence applying to universities and colleges; in that sense, it is unrelated to rights and duties of an individual teacher.

  • I think your answer is suitable for the modified question (but not so for the original one which is not restricted to political views in an academic/research context but in the public media--where Paul's answer may be more relevant). Anyway, kindly let me undo the answer acceptance and wait for what others may say. – Orion Apr 22 '13 at 15:16
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    @Orion of course, no problem… regarding public media, see the second part of my answer: academics will take flak for extreme views, including negative job perspectives, but probably neither more nor less than in any other job – F'x Apr 22 '13 at 15:44
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For propagating unpopular view (which can be considered offensive) a professor may lose a position (see e.g. James Watson's case). And in general, sensitive topics (e.g. like gender and ethnicity) may be risky, regardless of the scientific value of a statement one is making.

Moreover, sometimes there is a particular ban on some ideologies (e.g. propagation of Nazism in many European countries). However, it this case it is (usually) not a limitation on academic research, but only on political activity. (Similarly, "encouraging or assisting crime" is an offence and it does limit what one can say.)

As a side note, a humoristic slide from a presentation Beauty and the beast at the 2nd Offtopicarium:

enter image description here

  • Watson's loss of his position at Cold Spring Harbor does not demonstrate what you claim it demonstrates. (1) You describe this as if his only offense was to express an opinion that offended people. Actually, he expressed an opinion that lacked scientific validity and that also offended people. (2) He was an administrator, not an active scientific researcher. Administrators are expected to handle public relations carefully as part of their job, e.g., so as to make the institution attractive to potential donors. – Ben Crowell Nov 13 '13 at 0:56
  • What about the current case of Prof. Salaita and his dismissal from the University of Illinois for tweeting his condemnation over Israeli actions on the people of Gaza? – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 17:23
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In addition to getting flak from your colleagues, some views might also get you fired or forced out of your position. For example, if you publicly state that the best solution for Africa is to drop a few nukes, the university might force you to resign.

I think what is important is that you can provide rational arguments for your opinion, as science is based on facts (and the interpretation of those facts).

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