There's academic freedom, and then there's 'academic freedom'

May 06 2022 | #linguistics

As some readers may be aware, the Linguistics Society of America is embroiled in a controversy about academic freedom. ((Yes, another one.)[])

If you weren’t aware, I’ve included a summary of the timeline beneath the following cut (corrections welcome):

(click to expand) - *April 26:* The LSA distributes a resolution for discussion by the membership. The resolution proposes that the LSA adopt a lightly revised version of the [Chicago Principles of Free Expression](; comments are open until May 31, to be followed by a vote of the membership. - *Immediately thereafter, continuing for several days:* Some comment in support of the resolution, but most in opposition. In addition to a variety of procedural and practical objections, Many objectors point out that the resolution undercuts or is hostile to recent work attempting to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion within the LSA. (Several commenters observe that for exactly this reason, the Chicago Principles have not been uncontroversial.) - *At the same time:* Reading the minutes of the January 2022 meeting of the LSA Executive Committee, one commenter observes that adopting the Chicago Principles was initially proposed to the EC directly, not as a resolution. In the same meeting of the EC, two other proposals were put to the EC: removing the *Perspectives* section from the flagship LSA journal *Language*, and ending the voluntary collection of demographic information from LSA members. This confluence of proposals is seen by many opponents of the resolution as confirmation that at least some of the people who proposed it do indeed seek to undercut efforts to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion in the LSA. - *May 2:* The LSA EC withdraws the resolution on procedural grounds (according to an email, the EC believed they voted only on whether to send a resolution to the membership, while in fact they vote on whether to approve the resolution themselves). Comments are hidden, then made visible, then hidden again. Briefly, a comment from one of the original signatories to the resolution is visible, promising a collective unified statement in a few days. - *May 6:* The LSA EC emails the membership again, this time with a link to a new forum for discussing the resolution. None of the previous comments are visible, but commenters are invited to repost if they choose.

I was and remain opposed to the resolution that was proposed, though I value academic freedom and agree it deserves protection. Here, for the record, I am preserving a lightly edited copy of a comment I posted on the second discussion page hosted by the LSA.

In several venues, both online and offline, I have heard or seen many colleagues express confusion about why so many other (often more junior) linguists object to a statement that seems (to the first group) merely to articulate benign support for free speech and academic freedom.

A comment by Joe Fruehwald, his linked Medium post, and several lengthy comments made beneath the original resolution (no longer visible online), all endeavoured to lay out the current political and social context around claims that academic freedom is currently imperilled. Such claims have been made increasingly by those on the extreme right, who equate public criticism of their views (typically by peers, students, or members of the public) with government- or employer-imposed penalties.

In this context, apparently “neutral” statements in favour of academic freedom are very naturally read as supporting those who use “academic freedom” as a shield behind which they are permitted to say racist, transphobic, or otherwise hateful things in public, without even the threat of public criticism that they deem “uncivil”.

If you feel aggrieved that clear and direct language about the value of free speech is no longer understood as expressing a good faith argument, I entirely sympathize. But the well has already been poisoned; in the absence of explicit words to the contrary from writers, readers aware of how the language of academic freedom has been co-opted by bad actors cannot but wonder whether a given statement supporting free expression is intended as covert support of extremist views.

Those who opposed the original resolution are not opposed to the concepts of free speech or academic freedom, nor (I believe) are we generally of the opinion that academic freedom is never in need of defense. But we are also aware that “academic freedom” and “civility” have been used (hypocritically) as cudgels to silence academics who call out the lack of diversity in academia in general and linguistics in particular, and who seek to investigate issues of power and oppression both inside and outside the academy.

The internet has given us examples of what happens in spaces where speech is entirely unregulated (except by the strict limits of the law): websites that do not moderate racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted speech become spaces where many people are ironically not able to speak freely, where people of colour, women, or trans people cannot participate in discourse without being exposed to a constant grind of hate.

If the LSA wishes to support positive freedom for all its members to engage in the academic exchange of ideas, then it cannot endorse a narrow view of free speech as simply freedom from restriction from authorities, in which literally all ideas are equally welcome. We cannot allow linguistics to be a field where some people must wade through a swamp of speech that “civilly” and “politely” questions whether they have equal personhood with others.

It may be that those who support the earlier resolution as originally put forward agree with me on this point. I certainly hope many do! But if that is the message you thought was expressed by the original text, please listen to the many colleagues who have written to say that they do not and cannot read it in that light given other events in the recent cultural landscape—events that may not have been on your radar.

If we are concerned about government overreach in restricting certain forms of speech, let’s organize to oppose the Florida “don’t say gay” bill, let’s organize to explain why excluding “critical race theory” from schools is wrongheaded, let’s organize to oppose banning certain books in public libraries. But let’s not organize around a purely imaginary spectre of threatened academic freedom within the LSA, and let’s remember that statements in favour of academic freedom are like any other speech act, in that they can only be pragmatically interpreted with reference to a broader context.

  • As an example of a defence of academic freedom that centres justice and inclusion, see the Academic Freedom for All statement