Epictetus once said “only the educated are free,” but a Supreme Court ruling may challenge that. Although no professors were involved in the Garcetti v. Ceballos case that was settled in 2006, the verdict could endanger teachers’ freedom of speech in their own classrooms, which would directly affect the academic freedom we take for granted.
The case involved Richard Ceballos, a California deputy district attorney who addressed his superiors concerning a matter in an investigation. Ceballos claims he was demoted and transferred for speaking out against a matter of public concern. It was brought to trial but lower courts dismissed the claim, stating that Ceballos’s speech was not protected because at time of the confrontation he was acting as a public servant and not as a private citizen.
A recent brief filed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Speech argues that if speech related to employment was not protected by the First Amendment, there could be alarming and dangerous repercussions for any public employee; professors at UVU are state employees and they could be censored in their own classrooms.
Professor Scott Abbott, chairman of the university’s AAUP chapter, was recently quoted in the Deseret News in a Nov. 15 article titled “Professors fear erosion of the freedom of speech,” saying that “real education is impossible without academic freedom for faculty and students . . . if you start restraining academic freedom in one area, it would trickle down.”
The great irony of this is that a teacher becomes more restricted when speaking about the topics in which they are experts. Imagine a political science professor at a state university – since she is employee of the State to teach social and political history specifically, according to this case her freedom of speech is not protected when discussing that subject matter. In short, she surrenders her rights while working.
However, if she were to give some advice on the culinary arts in class, there would be no problem because she’s hired by the state to teach history, not cooking. Cooking tips are protected under her rights as a private citizen.
One can almost imagine a 1984-style university where teachers lecture according to government-approved scripts, unable to stray or alter from the approved wording. When teachers are suppressed it limits the creative and educative process.
Professor Abbott said that our rights only seem important “when someone tries to stop [them] . . . [and that] is also our time to act.” This decision from the Supreme Court ties our professors’ rights of free speech to academic freedom.
We students need to concern ourselves with protecting the rights of our professors as their restrictions inhibit our education and growth. We should proactively contribute in the classroom and take advantage of these educational privileges. The central purpose of our university’s chapter of the AAUP is the “defense of academic freedom,” the freedom that we all require to progress not merely as students but as a society.
We too can defend this academic freedom and the freedom of our teachers. We’re obligated to do it.