U pushes to protect faculty freedom of speech

Faculty want to revise University policy because recent court decisions leave professors’ speech rights vulnerable.

Universities pay professors to tell students what they think, but several court rulings could suggest otherwise. However, national academic leaders said the University of Minnesota is setting precedents when it comes to protecting academic freedom. The University SenateâÄôs Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee is pushing to revise the Board of Regents policy on academic freedom to better protect staff from the consequences of the recent court decisions, which limit academic freedom in public universities. The Faculty Senate will consider the revision Thursday . If it passes, the committee expects the Board of Regents, which has final say, to consider the revision at their May meeting. âÄúItâÄôs crucial to the society that university faculty have freedom of expression, without constraint or threat of retaliation,âÄù the academic freedom committeeâÄôs chair and English professor Tom Clayton said. âÄúWithout that we have no guarantee of honesty anywhere in society.âÄù In a 2006 ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, the U.S. Supreme Court said public agencies can discipline their employees for any speech made in connection with their jobs. Though the case did not involve a public university employee, Justice David Souter dissented, saying he hoped the decision would not imperil First Amendment rights of public college and university teachers who âÄúnecessarily speak and write âÄòpursuant to official duties.âÄôâÄù Unfortunately the ruling has had a negative effect on higher education, said American Association of University Professors Senior Counsel Rachel Levinson . Courts made a handful of other rulings in relation to the 2006 case that do involve public university faculty. âÄúIn some of those, the courts arenâÄôt even really recognizing that the majority in Garcetti said that speech about teaching and research might be treated differently than other public employeesâÄô speech,âÄù Levinson said. University professor and director of the Silha Center for Media Law and Ethics Jane Kirtley said public universities have been able to target professors who have criticized university governance. âÄúThe general trend around the country is that courts are interpreting the idea of academic freedom very narrowly,âÄù she said. âÄúThey are taking cases that I think, frankly, the Supreme Court had not intended to be used with cases involving professors.âÄù Kevin Renken, a University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee professor, learned his freedom of speech only goes so far. In 2008, the U.S. Seventh Circuit court ruled the First Amendment didnâÄôt protect him when he spoke out against his departmentâÄôs handling of a national Science Foundation grant. The three-judge panel cited the Garcetti case. Renken said he filed suit because the University reduced his pay and terminated the grant in reaction to his criticism of how the administration had handled the money. âÄúI told the truth. I did the right thing,âÄù he said. âÄúWhat academic freedom do we have when the courts donâÄôt recognize it?âÄù The AAUP established a committee examining defense of academic freedom at public universities, and is encouraging schools to follow the University of MinnesotaâÄôs lead, Levinson said. Although the revision, which is meant to strengthen facultyâÄôs right to speak out on matters of public concern and matters pertaining to their jobs, has yet to pass through all the appropriate channels, it has strong support from University leaders. University Senior Vice President and Provost Tom Sullivan helped the committee draft the revision and has endorsed the change. âÄúOne of the most, perhaps the most important principal that we have at a university is academic freedom for faculty,âÄù Sullivan said.âÄù The University has had a long distinguished history of protecting and advancing academic freedom and, in this case, if it passes through the channels, it would put the University in the forefront of protecting academic freedom.âÄù -Robert Downs contributed to this report