by Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project, adjunct professor at New York University, and author of Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. Her latest book is Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge.
Academic freedom is not as obvious a concept nowadays as it seemed when the Supreme Court first incorporated it into the First Amendment in response to McCarthy era investigations and purges of left-wing teachers and professors. Why, after all, should academics have privileges not given to workers in other jobs? Surely, academic freedom would not protect the instructor who is incompetent -- who denies the Holocaust in a history class, for example, or preaches creationism instead of teaching evolution in Biology 101.
The idea of academic freedom emerged more than a century ago, when professors who supported union organizing and other social causes were losing their jobs because corporate-dominated boards of trustees did not like their politics. One of the best-publicized firings was of the young professor Scott Nearing from the University of Pennsylvania. In response, prominent scholars got together and founded the American Association of University Professors (the AAUP). The AAUP’s 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” argued that universities are different from businesses and professors are therefore different from other employees. The freedom they need in their teaching, research, and “extramural” speech (such as Scott Nearing’s advocacy for socialism and against child labor) are not matters of personal privilege but of broad public interest.
Or, as Justice Felix Frankfurter put it in a 1952 case, teachers are “the priests of our democracy” because it is their special task “to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.” It’s this notion that education is not just about rote learning but about “habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry” that makes teachers essential to democracy.
But lofty ideals are vulnerable to political realities and, consumed by the Cold War tensions of the 1950s, most American schools and universities decided that academic freedom should not protect teachers suspected of communist sympathies unless they cooperated with loyalty investigations by renouncing their past political errors and “naming names” of others they had known in the radical movements of the 1930s and ‘40s.