By Amabel Karoub, For the Daily
Published October 23, 2013
Civil liberties attorney Marjorie Heins spoke at the Senate Assembly’s 23rd Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom at the Law School’s Honigman Auditorium Wednesday afternoon.
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Heins talked about her book, “Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge,” which describes U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have redefined academic freedom in recent years.
Much of her lecture described the history of academic freedom through discussing Supreme Court cases that involve the topic. Heins said academic freedom should belong to individual professors and not the institution in which they teach and research.
This distinction was crucial in determining the fate of the three former University professors that the lecture honored: H. Chandler Davis, Mark Nickerson and Clement Markert, who were suspected of communist affiliations, were asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding their political beliefs.
When these professors refused to testify, all three were suspended from teaching at the University, ultimately leading to Davis and Nickerson's permanent dismissal.
The University’s choice to fire the professors was controversial, because the termination was due to “extramural speech” — speech, or affiliations with political groups outside of the University.
Heins noted the practice of these dismissals and similar cases were addressed in the 1968 court case Pickering, in which the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion asserted that under the First Amendment, teachers could not be punished for their remarks on public issues unless their expression could be proven to interfere with “workplace efficiency.”
While some believe that the ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education resolved the issue of teachers lacking first amendment rights, universities are now left to decide whether or not the extramural speech of their professors interferes with their ability to do their job.
Heins said sometimes professor’s opinions might differ from those supporting universities, causing the institution to decide that their public opinions do interfere with workplace efficiency.
“The trustees don’t like it, and they bear pressure on the university to fire the professor,” Heins said.
In an interview before the lecture, Heins said opinions on academic freedom are complex because, while it has a legal meaning, it is also subject to the standards of a university. She said it is time for the University to make a firm stance on where the line is drawn between professional workplace and personal freedom.
“Even though the First Amendment only applies to what public universities do the concept of academic freedom should apply to all colleges and institutions,” Heins said. “It’s the basic underpinning of what we understand higher education to be, but it’s not unlimited. Yes, there should be free speech on campus … the professor ought to have a lot of freedom but not complete freedom — there’s got to be some protections.”
After the lecture, Rackham student Vishal Khandelwal said it’s important that professors and researchers take notice of the issues Heins brought up.
“It’s really relevant to how we’ll be conducting academia in the future,” Khandelwal said. “I wish she could have stressed more on the opposition that faculty face from within the academic establishment.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly defined academic freedom. It also incorrectly stated that H. Chandler Davis, Mark Nickerson and Clement Markert had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.