Civil liberties lawyer Marjorie Heins to deliver academic freedom lecture


Academic freedom is complicated as a matter of both educational policy and First Amendment right, but it belongs primarily to individual teachers and only secondarily to the university as an institution, a civil liberties lawyer and author says.

Marjorie Heins, founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project, which provides research and advocacy on free speech, copyright, and media democracy issues, explains the importance of academic freedom by citing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Marjorie Heins

In 1952, he called teachers “the priests of our democracy” whose job was “to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.”

Heins will discuss her book — “Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge” — during the University Senate’s 23rd Annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom at 4 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Law School’s Honigman Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public.

The book chronicles the history, law and personal stories behind the struggle to recognize academic freedom as “a special concern of the First Amendment.”

In her briefs, Heins often quoted language from two important Supreme Court cases that were decided in response to the anti-communist investigations and purges of the 1950s: Sweezy v. New Hampshire in 1957, and Keyishian v. Board of Regents in 1967.

Heins’ book describes how Harry Keyishian came to be the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that bears his name, and that famously recognized academic freedom as a “special concern of the First Amendment” It also looks at how the personal conflicts and political motivations of Supreme Court justices such as Frankfurter, William Brennan, and William O. Douglas influenced First Amendment jurisprudence.

Her talk also will include recent situations in which claims of academic freedom conflicted with other important values, such as the discretion of the university in deciding who should get tenure.

From 1991-98, she directed the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arts Censorship Project, where she was co-counsel in several major First Amendment cases, including Reno v. ACLU (invalidating a law that criminalized “indecent” communications on the Internet). She has been a fellow at the New York University Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center, the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, and the Open Society Institute.

Her previous book, “Not in Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth,” won the American Library Association’s Eli Oboler Award for Best Published Work on Intellectual Freedom in 2002.

The lecture is named for three U-M faculty members — Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson — who in 1954 were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. All invoked constitutional rights and refused to answer questions about their political associations.

All three were suspended from the university. Markert subsequently was reinstated, and Davis and Nickerson were dismissed.

Sponsoring the lecture are the Academic Freedom Lecture Fund, American Association of University Professors University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Chapter and Michigan Conference; and at U-M: the Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Office of the Vice President for Global Communications, Law School, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, Institute for the Humanities, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and an anonymous donor.


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