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Home » Why Academic Freedom Is Not The Same As Free Speech: Michael Bérubé (Transcript)

Why Academic Freedom Is Not The Same As Free Speech: Michael Bérubé (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Professor Michael Bérubé’s talk titled “Why Academic Freedom Is Not The Same As Free Speech” at TEDxPSU 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Hello, and good day. You know, you may have noticed that every time there’s a political controversy of some kind on an American campus, someone will appeal to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, sometimes in the same breath as if they’re the same thing. Well they’re not, and that’s what I’m here to tell you today. Free speech we mostly understand.

It covers pretty much everything except fraud, defamation, child pornography, and threats of imminent violence. Courts have generally decided that the violence has to be really imminent. It’s basically a neo-Nazi running at you with a tiki torch right now.

That matters. But academic freedom is not free speech. And so Jennifer Ruth of Portland State University and I wrote an entire book to say so, because we had noticed over the past ten years or so that people were beginning to confuse and even sometimes conflate these two concepts, free speech and academic freedom, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes deliberately.

Reasons for Confusing Free Speech and Academic Freedom

I think there are two reasons for this. One is that a lot of these controversies involve invited speakers. And while all these invited speakers are really matters of academic freedom, some, like this one, involves alt-right trolls whose only purpose is to weaponize free speech, generate outrage, and own the libs, and make a pile of money doing it.

But there’s nothing academic about an event like that. It serves no legitimate intellectual purpose, right? So there’s another reason as well, though, and it’s a little more complicated.

The Supreme Court decided in 1967 that academic freedom is a special concern of the First Amendment. It’s not clear what that means. So I like to draw on a metaphor.

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