Academic freedom lecturer addresses censorship threats


An increase in legislation censoring the teaching of race, gender and sexuality in public schools poses a threat not only to the quality of education for young American students, but also to higher education institutions across the country.

Jonathan Friedman highlighted that point Nov. 9 at the 33rd annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

The director of free expression and education programs at PEN America used the lecture to urge university faculty, staff and students to address the increasing threats of academic censorship.

“In so many parts of the country right now, it’s the ‘chilling effect.’ It’s the fact that people are more afraid of what might happen, so they curb their remarks in one way or another,” Friedman said.

“They curb their teaching, they’re pulling books, they’re doing it quietly, etc. We have to encourage people not to do that, as we encourage people to talk about this a lot more.”

Photo of Jonathan Friedman delivering the Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, delivers the 33rd annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

The lecture, presented by the University of Michigan’s Faculty Senate, is named for three faculty members who were punished in the 1950s for refusing to testify before a congressional committee about their political beliefs.

During his talk, titled “Educational Gag Orders, State Censorship, and the Fight for Higher Education,” Friedman addressed state censorship laws and the dangers they pose to education.

“We actually have never had this many different kinds of threats to different kinds of free expression, really, all at once,” Friedman said.  

While Americans in general recognize the undemocratic nature of state control of ideas and the suppression of minority views, unlimited freedom of speech can cross into hate speech, he said.

Friedman cited several court cases in the United States from the past two centuries that have changed and adapted laws that address the tenuous line between free speech and hate speech that incites a genuine threat of harassment.

“Free speech as a concept, and what it means, actually evolves. So free speech today could very well be different from free speech tomorrow, because free speech is kind of what we make it in the United States,” Friedman said.

Examining aspects of free speech can lead to debates about academic freedom, which Friedman said is difficult to define because it exists at times in the legal realm and at times in the realm of universities and a democratic body of faculty.

“The college campus is a very complicated environment. It isn’t one environment. It’s many different environments all at once,” Friedman said.

Photo of Jonathan Friedman considering a question from an audience member.
Jonathan Friedman considers a question from an audience member at the Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Academic freedom, he said, has four core components: research, teaching, public debate and criticism of the university itself. Most debates centering on academic freedom concern the latter two components.

Recent issues in the news have included professors under fire for compromising tweets or statements made at public protests. Friedman said these cases are complicated because they call into question: How far does academic freedom go? Where is it a person’s free speech as a citizen or as a professor?

Friedman asked the audience to consider different scenarios: a chemistry professor who lectured about a school board election, an education professor writing a blog under a pseudonym to criticize gay teachers, and an English professor criticizing their university president on Twitter.

A show of hands indicated people were divided whether the professors in each scenario were protected under academic freedom. Friedman said analyzing these situations is complicated because basic principles as well as legal questions are at stake.

“We do have to figure out a new way to teach young people and to train professors to accept a lot more of this ambiguity instead of looking for kind of simple, cookie-cutter administrator reactions,” Friedman said.

“We’ve created an environment where the administrators, the staff, the faculty, the students, the senior leaders, not only do they not all agree, they don’t have the tools. And they don’t have the education to be able to handle the situations that are right in front of them.”

He said education is critical to help people understand the complexities of academic freedom. He said university faculties throughout the United States have experienced the ramifications of censorship, but there is little to no discussion about it.

“Much like the end of the McCarthy era, which led to a kind of overflowing moment of all these stories and information of all these ways in which people felt censored and suppressed, I have no doubt that that is what is going to be on the horizon in the next few years,” he said.

To further combat this suppression, Friedman said, universities should embrace free speech and diverse opinions on their campuses.

“That’s actually the last thing that most university leaders want, because what they want is cheer, pomp, donations from alumni, people that have a positive experience,” he said.

“But in many ways, it’s the challenge at the core of a lot of us — the need to help all the students, all the professors, all the administrators come to some shared understanding that good friction can be a positive force for the institution. And that an institution that has a lot of different ideas and a lot of opportunity for different people to speak to each other is actually doing a much better job for democracy than anything else.”



  1. Lynette Winegarner
    on November 13, 2023 at 9:56 am

    This was a really interesting discussion. I highly recommend catching it on YouTube if you missed it on Thursday.

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