Just another brick in the wall – How the Supreme Court could limit acaemic freedom

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.

Alex Sousa is studying journalism in UVU’s communication department. He’s serving as the managing editor at the UVU Review as well as the editor of the music blog on uvureview.com. He’s had experience working as a freelance writer and also as a copy writer at a marketing agency. Currently he’s working as the Editor-in-chief of the Utah Tech Magazine, an interactive, digital publication. He’s a Utah native who’s traveled around the world; having lived in Mexico, backpacked through Europe, studied in the Middle East and—for a time—been stranded in the Ukraine. He can be found on Facebook and he’s available on Twitter @TwoFistedSousa or by email at aljosousa@gmail.com.

14 Responses to "Just another brick in the wall – How the Supreme Court could limit acaemic freedom"

  1. Nathan   November 24, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    There are unofficial restrictions that are already in place with respect to academic speech. For faculty to gain tenure, they have to say things that please the department chair and other tenured faculty.

    This ruling may have a chilling effect on some government employees, but I doubt that academic speech will be significantly impacted.

    Are you proposing that Professors be allowed to say anything that they want in the classroom without consequence? For example, a science professor may have strong views concerning evolution v. creation. Is that protected speech? What about climate change beliefs, would that also be protected under the 1st amendment?

  2. Kaye   November 27, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    @Nathan Need I say anything but CLEARLY THEY WOULD BE PROTECTED. Are you seriously QUESTIONING that? Yes, for Pete’s sake, what a professor says in the classroom MUST be protected speech. Anything less is juvenile paternalism.

  3. Nathan   December 8, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    If you want to fight against censorship, maybe you should start with the Obama Administration and their attacks on Fox News.

    As it is, academic freedom isn’t protected in the bill of rights, and if you look a little closer at the issue, you will find there is already plenty going on to limit it.

  4. Andy   December 9, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Nathan, saying that someone’s opinions are stupid or invalid isn’t censorship. Here, I’ll provide you with a handy example.

    CENSORSHIP: “Let’s prevent Nathan from having access to a computer because he says really stupid stuff.”

    NOT CENSORSHIP: “I wish that Nathan wouldn’t have access to a computer because he says really stupid stuff.”

    I hope that clears things up.

  5. Nathan   December 14, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    So when the executive branch starts attacking a news organization because the coverage in unfavorable, that’s is attempted censorship. Whether theu succeed in silencing their critics is a moot point. The attack is occurring and the attack is wrong.

  6. Andy   December 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    You’re just a tender little soul, aren’t you. It’s absolutely pat-you-on-the-head adorable that you fail to see the irony of saying that someone’s criticism of the last-place Special Olympian of a “news network” is wrong.

    Criticism is not censorship. I can try and give you a clearer example, but I’m having a blast trying to parse something resembling a rational thought from your scribblings. Coming up short, of course, but a blast all the same.

    You bring smiles to the children, Nathan. Smiles. And you can’t know how grateful we all are for that.

  7. Nathan   December 16, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Re: “last-place Special Olympian of a ‘news network'”

    I know that popularity is hardly a measure of performance, but I have to wonder what fantasy world you live in when you consider the above comment in light of the fact that Fox is the highest rated cable news network.

    For the record, I don’t watch Fox news, (or any cable news for that matter) but I take note when the executive branch attempts to chill any critic.

    I’m also curious about how long you spent writing that last post. You should re-read it.

  8. Andy   December 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Transformers 2 has, at the time of this writing, made over $400 million at the box office, let alone international intake. Clearly, quality and popularity are not synonymous. Fox News may be the highest-rated, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t shut the hell up until it has something accurate to say (spoiler alert: it doesn’t, and my hopes that it’ll crumble into cultural nothingness aren’t censorship).

    Watching you try to reason your way out of a stupid argument is the intellectual equivalent of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Which, if you recall, was also a very popular show. It must be good!

  9. Nathan   December 17, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Wow, you spent your post confirming what I said in my caveat.

    The point that I have been making all along (maybe it’s too nuanced for your puny brain–see reductio ad hominem works for me too!) is that there is a 1st amendment right for news organizations to speak their mind. For the executive branch to attack a news organization outright, they are demonstrating the first steps that any totalitarian government takes when trying to consolidate power–which is to silence their critics.


    They may not have shut down the network (though you can bet the Obama FCC is looking for ways to make their lives miserable) but they are demonstrating a propensity toward abusing their power.

    The problem here is not the criticism itself. I could listen left-wingers criticize Fox all day long,…

  10. Nathan   December 17, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    and it wouldn’t bother me. The problem is the source of the criticism.

    If you can’t understand the difference, that’s okay. I’ll lump you in with the other cable news watchers that care more about entertainment than factual information. Except of course, you’ll be watching MSNBC and CNN instead of FOX. No one can say I didn’t try to help you understand the difference between theoretical suppression of unprotected speech, and actual movements toward suppressing constitutionally protected speech.

  11. Andy   December 21, 2009 at 6:39 am

    In what way did Obama or his administration “attempt” to silence a critic? By calling them names? Hurt feelings and expressed opinions do not censorship make.

    I’m sad that I actually have to go to the dictionary for this, but that’s the failings of the public education system, I guess:

    From m-w.com’s definition of “censor”:

    “To examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable; also: to suppress or delete as objectionable.”

    Nothing was suppressed, nothing was deleted, censorship didn’t happen. No “actual movements toward suppressing constitutionally protected speech” were taken…just imaginary ones, and only inside of your delightfully entertaining brain.

    I bet you also think that 9/11 was an inside job and that Dick Cheney has a “BLOOD FOR OIL” tattoo on his inner thigh (any idiot knows it’s on his back).

  12. Nathan   December 21, 2009 at 3:03 pm


  13. Aaron   December 28, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Back on the subject of classrom sensorship. We must do what we can to protect the first amendment. That said, the only people worried about this particular issue are those who see it as the first step towards not having a dubious constitutional excuse for assaulting political candidates with fruit, or defacing the property of people who have spent their money on clothing made from animal skins (apparently because we should not have the right to coose how we clothe ourselves). Science, engineering, and math professors have no reason to be worried about this because they already teach subjects where the principals require evidence before they are concidered credible enough to teach. Only those who teach subjects that are based no opinion need worry. And lets face it we could do with a few lass philosophers anyway.

  14. Nathan   December 29, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    I’m in favor of “lass philosophers” too, but I don’t know how many female philosophers enjoy being called “lasses”. 😉

    I’d be interested in a more thorough treatment of the subjects which you believe are based on opinion. Philosophy is a very broad subject which includes topics such as inductive and deductive logic; hardly the subject of opinion.


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