Scholars Who Refuse To Be Silenced Form Alliance

25 Nov 2021

University professors of all political stripes are banding together to defend themselves against disciplinary action and even dismissals for exercising their right to free expression on campus and off.

STI Experts

Convinced that “an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on academic freedom everywhere,” 200 college and university faculty members and emeritus scholars joined forces to found, in March 2021, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), and membership has since doubled.  The non-profit, non-partisan organization exists to protect “freedom of thought, inquiry, expression, and discussion” in institutions of higher learning in the United States. 

The AFA seeks to combat a climate of growing hostility to unpopular viewpoints in academia that threatens not only the integrity of the learning environment but also the livelihoods of those who dare to express them. Robert P. George and his longtime colleague Cornel West, who have worked together in previous initiatives in support of freedom of expression,  were among the first members.

Instances of institutional suppression or retaliation against professors may be addressed in several ways by the Alliance. The AFA may draw attention to the situation through open letters to officials, publish statements calling for fair treatment, and even provide assistance to professors’ legal defense when their constitutional, statutory, contractual, or school-based rights have been violated.   

The AFA’s 13-member Legal Advisory Council reviews cases and makes recommendations to the 9-member Academic Committee, which decides whether to give financial support and/or issue public statements.  The group also provides moral support and advises individuals under attack as to the actions they should or should not take in order to defend themselves.  Three of the alliance’s leaders, Donald A. Downs, Keith E. Whittington, and Robert P. George published an advice manual to this effect in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “So They’re Trying to Shut You Up: How to defend yourself in a free-speech crisis, whatever your politics.” 

“Faculty members who find themselves on this unfamiliar terrain need a first-aid kit to minimize the damage until they are able to secure legal assistance to help them navigate the perils of a free-speech controversy,” explains the document, which then proceeds to spell out strategy.

The group has had some success in getting university administrations to abandon disciplinary action against faculty.  In May, for instance, the Universities of San Diego and of Rhode Island backed down after having initiated proceedings having to do with controversial written material touching on the issue of China in one case and of gender and sexuality in the other. 

The AFA makes clear that it has no litmus test of its own as to favored or disfavored viewpoints, and will endeavor to protect academics’ “freedom of thought and expression in their work as researchers and writers or in their lives as citizens, within established ethical and legal bounds; freedom to design courses and conduct classes using reasonable pedagogical judgment; and freedom from ideological tests, affirmations, and oaths.”