Column ‘Academic freedom as a legal philosophical and practical problem’, by Sanne Taekema

by Admin on August 21, 2017

Academic freedom as a legal philosophical and practical problem

Academic freedom is not a problem that is high on the agenda for legal philosophers in The Netherlands. However, if we look around us, we see a growing number of countries in which academic freedom is under pressure. The most visible examples was the Hungarian legislation targeting Central European University, legislation which formallly only addressed the problem of foreign universities in Hungary without a sister campus in their state of origin, but which everybody recognized as an attack on this particular independent university, which is not run by Orban sympathisers.

At the IVR World Congress in Lisbon, held in July 2017, academic freedom was a theme. In the plenary panel on the subject, the discussion was not so much on the philosophical foundations of academic freedom as on the practical threats to it. A crucial aspect of academic freedom is its connection to the protection of liberal democracy. It is not a coincidence that in Hungary and Turkey not only academic institutions are targeted but also the judiciary, NGOs, and independent media. Academic freedom is an important source of criticism of autocratic regimes, not merely by the voicing of critical opinions by academics, but even more so by educating students to be critical thinkers who may influence the politics of the future.

In Hungary and Turkey academic freedom comes under external threat: through direct political intervention (such as firing professors), and through indirect influence by cutting financial support or making that support conditional on political acquiescence. That freedom can also be threatened internally: by university management curtailing the activities of academic staff or by peer-to-peer pressure.

Part of that peer-to-peer threat to academic freedom may be a negative attitude: the lack of solidarity with colleagues whose academic freedom is in danger. Direct peer-to-peer threats may take the form of censuring colleagues by labeling them as unscientific or dangerous. However, academics may also let others’ freedom slip through their indifference, by looking the other way if that freedom is endangered as it is in Hungary and Turkey today. A difficult question then is what solidarity should consist in. Solidarity can all too easily turn into pity for our poor colleagues who are oppressed. That is not what they need: recognizing their academic freedom also entails that colleagues take them seriously as interlocutors, and talk to them, not about them.

To some, the problem of academic freedom may seem remote, but I think we should not hold on to illusions. The developments in Hungary, Turkey and now Poland show how fast countries with a functioning democracy and rule of law can degenerate to become authoritarian states. In any case we should recognize something like the solidarity with legal philosophers elsewhere and feel the need to keep this problem on the agenda. So let us make a sustained effort to help publish the work of colleagues who can no longer publish in their own country, to visit colleagues who can no longer go abroad, and to educate students in as many different places as possible so that there will be enough independent, critical minds to counter politicians who undermine democracy and rule of law.

Sanne Taekema

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