Academic Freedom and the Duty of Care

In Carl Fox & Joe Saunders (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Philosophy and Media Ethics. Routledge. pp. 56-68 (2024)
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Abstract

This chapter offers a plea for the media to reframe its coverage of campus controversies from free expression to academic freedom. These freedoms are entwined, but distinct. Freedom of expression is extended to all persons with no expectation of quality control, apart from legal prohibitions against defamation, threats, etc. By contrast, academic freedom is a cluster of freedoms afforded to scholarly personnel for a particular purpose – namely, the pursuit of universities’ academic mission to seek truth and advance understanding in the service of society. An academic freedom framing better reflects the distinctive social purpose around which universities are organized, as well as universities’ duty of care to employees and students. While universities have a legal and moral duty of care to all employees and students, the unjust, exclusionary past and present of higher education arguably makes that duty particularly acute in the case of equity-deserving (e.g., racialized, Indigenous, disabled or 2SLGBTQ+) people. Finally, academic freedom framing for campus media stories is less monolithic than free expression framing, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of campus controversies while keeping universities accountable to the public they serve. In this chapter, I survey three very different campus controversies at a single Canadian university, and the media response each received. I show how an academic freedom frame for those stories would have produced better reportage while reducing opportunities for bad actors to manipulate both universities and the media. At the end of the day, the real crisis at universities isn’t the cancellation of ill-judged events that were never a part of the academic mission; it is the ongoing erosion of academic freedom.

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Shannon Dea
University of Regina

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