In 1952, a young historian named Vera Shlakman was hauled before a US Senate committee investigating ‘subversion’ in public education and was summarily fired from her college-teaching job after she refused to answer all the committee’s questions about her political beliefs and associations. Shlakman was one of innumerable teachers who lost their livelihoods, and endured decades of FBI surveillance, because of the ferocious political inquisitions of the anti-Communist ‘Red hunt’ era.
By a wonderful quirk of history, one of Shlakman’s students, Harry Keyishian, later became a college teacher himself, and the lead plaintiff in a 1967 Supreme Court case that finally vindicated the free-speech rights of the teachers who had been victimised by the Red hunt. The Keyishian decision rejected political loyalty programmes for teachers and proclaimed academic freedom ‘a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom’.
Despite this inspiring rhetoric, the Supreme Court in Keyishian did not actually define academic freedom, or explain its limits. Surely, for example, it doesn’t give professors a right to engage in shoddy scholarship, to sexually or racially harass their students, or to depart radically from the subjects they are hired to teach.
Similar limits necessarily apply to free speech for students. We can agree that university policies imposing speech codes, mandating trigger warnings for course curricula, or consigning pickets and leaflets to tiny ‘free-speech zones’ are gross affronts to the basic freedom of thought that ought to characterise educational institutions. But that doesn’t mean free speech is an absolute right on campus any more than it is in the wider world, where laws against defamation, invasion of privacy, threats and sexual or racial harassment are legitimate limits on unfettered expression.
Admittedly, all of those laws can be misused, or applied too broadly. Free speech ought to be the ‘default’ position in any democratic society, and exceptions should be narrow. The line-drawing is sometimes difficult, but it has to be done.