Does Academic Freedom Give Professors the Right to Teach Whatever They Want?

May 25, 2013

University faculties enjoy a form of freedom of speech called academic freedom that you will not find in any other institution. However, it is not enshrined in law but is rather the product of historical tradition, enforced not only by the courts but by professional societies such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

In particular, academic freedom is not to be confused with the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. With academic freedom comes academic responsibility and scholarly integrity.

There has been considerable discussion on science blogs recently about a professor at Ball State, a public university in Muncie, Indiana, who is teaching a course called “The Boundaries of Science.” Although not required, the course can be applied for science credit on the core curriculum and is available only to honors students.

The professor, Eric Hedin, is in the physics and astronomy department. His course is advertised as a study of the relationships of the sciences to human concerns and society.

In his April 25 blog Why Evolution is True, University of Chicago biology professor Jerry Coyne revealed that Hedin is using science as a guise for promoting his personal, fundamentalist Christian world-view. This is clearly evident from the course syllabus and is confirmed by students’ comments and a perusal of his reading list.

The course includes scientific-sounding but highly dubious arguments for the existence of God and promotes intelligent design, miracles, and spirituality. The authors on the book list are almost all Christian apologists without a single dissenting view represented.

Hedin’s reading list is headed by Michael Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box (1998), which has been thoroughly refuted, and includes all the other cohorts of intelligent design as well as Christian apologists who are not scientists. There is no entry from any proponent of evolution or atheism. Hedin promotes notions that, for the most part, have as much honest scientific support as a flat Earth

Coyne wrote to Hedin’s chair and the university administration protesting that this was an inappropriate course for a public university, but he was rebuffed by both. Coyne then suggested legal action.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is a church-state watchdog group operating out of Madison, Wisconsin (I am a member). The legal staff of FFRF has had remarkable success in convincing many institutions such as school boards and town councils that they are breaking constitutional law when they sponsor sectarian activities such as prayers on public property. People can pray, but government can’t promote it. When the authorities can’t be convinced, FFRF sues, and it wins more often than not.

On May 15, FFRF sent a letter to the president of the Ball State University saying that Hedin’s course clearly “crosses ethical and constitutional lines.” The university administration responded that it would investigate the matter.

While agreeing that the course is “bad science” and its material of “abysmal quality,” in his April 25 Pharyngula popular blogger and biologist PZ Myers defended Hedin’s right to teach what he wants, citing academic freedom.

Laurence A. Moran, professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto agreed with Myers in his blog Sandwalk appearing the same day. Moran said, “I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us.”

Well, Moran and Myers are wrong. Academic freedom does not imply that an instructor is free to teach material that is demonstrably false. Most campuses provide a “free-speech area” for that purpose.

When I was at the University of Hawaii, an instructor was teaching courses in parapsychology in which he claimed, “telepathy is a skill documented around the world.” He said he would aid his students in developing their psychic skills to enable them to defend themselves against “invading minds,” and “stand protected in haunted places.”

Several professors and members of the community protested that this was not accepted knowledge and should not be presented in a university course. The courses were cancelled. On February 27, 1987, the instructor filed a lawsuit, Civil No. 87-0150, in the United States District Court for the State of Hawaii claiming he had been deprived of his constitutional rights.

In his decision published on August 31, 1988, Judge Harold Fong dismissed the case with prejudice. Relevant to the Ball State situation, the judge wrote:

“The classroom is not a public forum.”

I interpret this to mean that instructors are not free to teach whatever they want but are obligated to present the best knowledge of the day on their particular subject. Academic freedom is not academic license. Once upon a time science professors might have taught that the world was flat — when that was a consensus belief. But they can’t do that now, at least not in state-funded schools.

Now, if Ball State cancels the class the story is over — unless Hedin decides to sue. Then the Hawaii case applies and he is sure to lose. If, on the other hand, Ball State continues to support Hedin, then legal action may be the only recourse — as Coyne suggests. While the strongest basis for such action might be church-state separation, I think that the Hawaii precedent can be used to dismiss any claim by Hedin that his academic freedom was being violated.