Academic freedom is an elusive concept and is defined differently by faculty, the courts, and institutions of higher education.
Academic Freedom for Faculty
Penn State defines the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom for faculty members in policy AC 64 (https://policy.psu.edu/policies/ac64). Some of those rights and duties are:
- Academic freedom refers to the environment provided by the University that permits faculty members to engage in their scholarly pursuits of teaching, research, and related activities.
- Generally speaking, faculty members are free to engage in research or scholarship of their own undertaking, and in the publication of the results, subject to adequate performance of other academic duties.
- As citizens, faculty members are free from institutional censorship, but must make every effort to indicate when they are not speaking for the University.
- With regard to the University, faculty members agree to abide by University regulations, but are free to speak and write on governance issues or matters related to their professional duties without institutional discipline or restraint.
- As instructors, faculty members are responsible for appropriate standards of scholarship and for ensuring that there is no intrusion of material unrelated to the subject matter of the class.
Other related Penn State policies describe faculty responsibilities (Policy on General Standards of Professional Ethics, AC 47 - https://policy.psu.edu/policies/ac47 and the University’s Code of Responsible Conduct, AD 88 - https://policy.psu.edu/policies/ad88).
Academic Freedom for Students
The academic freedom rights and responsibilities of faculty members set forth in AC64 directly affect students, including as follows:
- As related to the University, faculty members are responsible for respecting confidentiality and privacy rights of others, including students.
- In the classroom, faculty members are expected to educate students to think for themselves and to present information fairly.
- No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside or unrelated to his/her own field of study.
If a student believes a faculty member has acted beyond the limits of academic freedom as an instructor, the student may seek a faculty conference and mediation as outlined here: http://undergrad.psu.edu/aappm/R-6-classroom-academic-freedom-conference-mediation.html
Students may also follow procedures for challenging grades (http://undergrad.psu.edu/aappm/G-10-grade-mediation-adjudication.html).
In addition, students at public institutions are protected by the First Amendment against restrictions on their rights of free speech and association. Learn more on that in the section of this site on Freedom of Speech.
The University’s Academic Freedom
Universities claim institutional rights of academic freedom. At Penn State, AC64 provides that the University “should be an institution whose members may express themselves, while protecting and respecting the rights of others to learn, to do research, and to carry out the essential functions of the University free from interference or obstruction.”
Courts generally support a university’s rights to “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 263 (1957) (concurring opinion by Justice Frankfurter).
Other resources on Academic Freedom
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) provides an overview of the concept of academic freedom, the rights and responsibilities of faculty members and how academic freedom affects students and professors. https://www.aaup.org/academic-freedom-students-and-professors-and-political-discrimination
Jointly with organizations representing students, colleges and others, the AAUP issued a joint statement on the rights and freedoms of students. https://www.aaup.org/report/joint-statement-rights-and-freedoms-students.