Academic freedom is not the same as freedom of expression

In the era of today’s heated culture wars, the concepts of academic freedom and freedom of expression have become increasingly conflated. Divisive political debates around critical race theoryQuébec’s Bill 32 and talk of establishing free speech guardians are just some recent examples.

But the two are different. Free speech is about the right to express one’s opinion, however accurate, false, good or bad it might be.

Academic freedom requires professional competency as determined by disciplinary communities. It is most succinctly defined by the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 statement as “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action”.

This is what makes laws like Québec’s Bill 32 problematic. It further confuses the distinction between freedom of speech and academic freedom. Bill 32 is troubling because it grants the government special powers to dictate what happens in university classrooms. That risks undermining the very principles of academic freedom its proponents are purportedly trying to protect.

Academic freedom – and the corresponding protections of tenure – are often portrayed by conservative politicians and spokespersons as a luxury perk demanded by professors looking for a cushy frills few others enjoy. That kind of narrative might be convenient fodder for populists trying to gain support for their own agendas, but is the need for academic freedom really all that unusual?

The truth is that while academic freedom itself might sound like a unique notion, granting special tools or rights to specific professions is rather commonplace.

Work-specific considerations are common

In order to effectively carry out the duties, tasks and responsibilities of one’s employment, workers in many fields are granted special access or consideration to otherwise publicly restricted tools, working conditions or rights.

Take occupations like sport, law enforcement, farming, journalism and more. In sport, hockey players are permitted to hit each other, and even fight within the game without fear of being arrested. Similarly, boxers may punch each other. Police and other agents of the state are permitted to carry and, under certain conditions, discharge a variety of weapons which would otherwise be restricted or banned.

At the extreme end of this spectrum are, of course, soldiers who are not only permitted, but expected, to shoot, kill or bomb so deemed enemies.

Farmers may access large quantities of fertiliser and other restricted materials that are otherwise regulated. Medical personnel administer a variety of drugs that are tightly controlled.

Elected federal and provincial members of parliament and legislative assemblies may speak freely in their respective chambers without fear of prosecution or civil liability for any comments they make. Journalists cannot be forced to reveal their sources.

It doesn’t require much imagination to see how the jobs above, without special considerations, would quickly become absurd, inefficient and even dangerous.

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