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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2009

U.S. Academic Freedom Fight Resonates Worldwide

By Jamie Cameron

Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power and the University

Robert O’Neil. Cambridge, MA & London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2008; 312 pp; ISBN: 978-0-674-02660-5, hardcover $35 us.
In Academic Freedom in the Wired World readers come face-to-face with the challenges to academic freedom at colleges and universities across the United States. Like others, author Robert O’Neil calls for heightened vigilance in the post-9/11 climate. Yet he finds academic freedom has fared surprisingly well in cases of “isolated outbursts” by professors who might be dismissed as “oddballs, dissidents, or marginal players.”

By contrast, O’Neil worries academic freedom has fared less well elsewhere, in light of ominous threats and pressures from new sources which place it at risk. Spe­cifically, he points to private power and the way it seeks to influence and constrain the research agenda. He also explains that, for better and for worse, digital and electronic technologies have wrought changes that have innumerable implications for academic free­­dom. Hence the book’s full title: Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power and the University.

O’Neil knows of what he writes. Though he is now Professor of Law Emeritus and University Professor Emeritus, he remains director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia. He has enjoyed a long and much admired career as an administrator, legal scholar and advocate for the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. As well, he has served as chair of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on academic freedom and tenure.

Far from taking academic freedom for granted, O’Neil questions the fundamental assumption that university teachers are entitled to be treated differently, and then proceeds to probe the dimensions and implications of that difference. He presents a near-encyclopedic review of incidents and case histories which raise issues about the nature and scope of academic freedom from every conceivable perspective.

O’Neil’s venue is the U.S. and his audience is Ame­rican. As a result the book is less about academic free­dom in the wired “world” than about its fortunes in the U.S. There is a single reference to Canada where Nancy Olivieri and David Healy are mentioned in passing, but no discussion of academic freedom elsewhere. The book may be a fine resource on the subject, but a parochial one.

A second observation highlights the milieu in which O’Neil works. He states that analogies between Canada and the U.S. are difficult, if not impossible, to draw. In his view that is because our approach to academic freedom is based entirely on contract law, while theirs relies on the Constitution and the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Even to a person versed in American constitutionalism, the degree to which academic freedom questions are legalized in the U.S., as documented here in numbing detail, is eye opening.

O’Neil emphasizes that academic freedom is a “sur­prisingly recent phenomenon” and makes it clear, in doing so, that its “nearly universal acceptance” owes much to its vital connection with the First Amendment. Readers may well wonder what “constitutionalization” of academic freedom might look like in Canada’s case, and whether we would regard it as a step forward or backward to move in that direction.

O’Neil is a constitutional scholar and a First Amend­ment believer, but he is far from complacent. Although he views a resurgence of McCarthyism as improbable, he knows better than to celebrate. Ac­cordingly, his final chapter proposes “specific antidotes” to address the vulnerability of academic freedom in the U.S. today. He urges the pro­fessoriate not be the “fish who is last to discover water.” By that he means members of the academic commu­nity must join cause whenever the freedom of the “oddballs, dissidents, or marginal players” in our midst is threatened. Even — and especially — when colleagues seem like “expendable or suicidal mavericks,” we must not forget their cause is poig­nantly and unalterably ours as well.

O’Neil also reminds us of the need to reach beyond our campuses and demonstrate to the community at large that academic freedom matters as much to those who are not professors as to those who are.

Academic Freedom in the Wired World was released in the spring of 2008. In the face of uncertainties that have deepened since then, O’Neil’s message is more urgent than ever and his insights have vitality for advocates of academic freedom everywhere.

Jamie Cameron is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, and a member of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.