A simple sentence on a syllabus has created a controversy over the free speech rights of students in Canada. Professor Jill Jacobson of the Queen’s University Psychology Department included a “civility clause” on her syllabus, which outlines grade penalties for any student who violates the classroom code of conduct. Intended to make sure that students do not take advantage of teaching assistants during her maternity leave, Jacobson’s syllabus states:
“If your question is not answered to your satisfaction on the first attempt, please accept the instructor’s or TA’s need to resume with the lecture or tutorial and instead speak with him or her after class or arrange a separate meeting outside of class time. Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting, and inappropriate behavior and language will not be tolerated in this class regardless of the context in which such actions occur (i.e., in person, in email, online, in peer reviews, etc.).”
Student complaints and an investigation have the university re-considering just exactly what constitutes students’ “Freedom of expression” and what does not. To further complicate the situation, Inside Higher Ed reports that Professor Jacobson believes that the school’s student government is “pro-bullying” because “they’ve equated freedom of speech with academic freedom with the right to be abusive.”
Is This an Isolated Incident?
Many professors understand professor Jacobson’s concerns. There has been a marked decline in classroom conduct in the past decade or so. It’s now rather common at some schools for students to hurl obscenities at instructors if they get a grade they don’t like or confront a professor or fellow student about something during class, as in the infamous video of a Florida Atlantic University student attacking her professor in class.
Sadly, such incidents are no longer rare. Something similar happened to me: while trying to maintain classroom discipline, a volatile student threatened to kill me and I was forced to leave campus for my own protection. Students often claim that they have the right to free speech and can therefore say or do anything they want in class. Some students may even further argue that because they paid for a class, they have a right to say or do whatever they want in it.
I am also very familiar with the ways that free speech issues can enter complicated territory when it comes to academia. For example, at the same private college where I was threatened by a student, I was reprimanded when I did not censor a very common obscene word while quoting from Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl,” in order to explain how the obscenity trial that followed its publication broke down many of the censorship laws of the era. This was a word hurled about the hallways of that campus with routine regularity and without academic context, but a student complained to the administration and before I knew it, there was a full-blown investigation.
So even though a California State Superior court judge decided in 1957 that the poem was of “redeeming social importance,” my then employers decided it was not. So I know about the potential difficulties professors can encounter when trying to maintain an environment of open inquiry and debate. It seems that the Canadian higher education system is now grappling with some of the same questions.
What is Student Academic Freedom?
It is difficult to find accurate, unbiased information on student academic freedom on the Internet. For example, many people laud the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and its Guide to Free Speech on Campus, but FIRE is largely funded by conservative groups such as the Sarah Sciafe Foundation, and by influential arch-conservatives such as the Koch Brothers. Partisan funding sources compromise the objectivity of any organization, so its guide is something to be used with caution.
Instead, students should look first to their school’s administration for information on institution policies. Many people do not realize that just about every school in the U.S. has guidelines that address student behavior and speech. For example, student handbooks often cover this issue.
But another resource is Professor Cary Nelson’s post on academic freedom on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Nelson is the author of No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, argues that first and foremost, “Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.” He also shares a definition that might be helpful in understanding the controversy in Canada and resolve student questions about just how far they can go when pursuing a question in class. He writes,
“Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.”
If we accept this argument, it means that Jacobson’s syllabus actually upholds academic freedom for both student and professor: by requiring students to hold any further questions or discussion until after class, the civility clause ensures that class can continue without monopoly by a disgruntled student.
Students, then, should not only check their school’s policy on academic freedom, but also remember that their freedom to discuss, debate, and disagree is a freedom shared by the rest of the students, the faculty, and the administration as well.