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It's Not Free Speech

Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom

How far does the idea of academic freedom extend to professors in an era of racial reckoning?

The protests of summer 2020, which were ignited by the murder of George Floyd, led to long-overdue reassessments of the legacy of racism and white supremacy in both American academe and cultural life more generally. But while universities have been willing to rename some buildings and schools or grapple with their role in the slave trade, no one has yet asked the most uncomfortable question: Does academic freedom extend to racist professors?

It's Not Free Speech considers the ideal of academic freedom in the wake of the activism inspired by outrageous police brutality, white supremacy, and the #MeToo movement. Arguing that academic freedom must be rigorously distinguished from freedom of speech, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth take aim at explicit defenses of colonialism and theories of white supremacy—theories that have no intellectual legitimacy whatsoever. Approaching this question from two angles—one, the question of when a professor's intramural or extramural speech calls into question his or her fitness to serve, and two, the question of how to manage the simmering tension between the academic freedom of faculty and the antidiscrimination initiatives of campus offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion—they argue that the democracy-destroying potential of social media makes it very difficult to uphold the traditional liberal view that the best remedy for hate speech is more speech.

In recent years, those with traditional liberal ideals have had very limited effectiveness in responding to the resurgence of white supremacism in American life. It is time, Bérubé and Ruth write, to ask whether that resurgence requires us to rethink the parameters and practices of academic freedom. Touching as well on contingent faculty, whose speech is often inadequately protected, It's Not Free Speech insists that we reimagine shared governance to augment both academic freedom and antidiscrimination initiatives on campuses. Faculty across the nation can develop protocols that account for both the new realities—from the rise of social media to the decline of tenure—and the old realities of long-standing inequities and abuses that the classic liberal conception of academic freedom did nothing to address. This book will resonate for anyone who has followed debates over #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, and "cancel culture"; more specifically, it should have a major impact on many facets of academic life, from the classroom to faculty senates to the office of the general counsel.

About the Authors

Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University. Jennifer Ruth is a professor of film at Portland State University. Together, they are the coauthors of The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments.

Endorsements

"A provocative and brave intervention into discussions about academic freedom as it is currently being exercised and challenged on American university campuses. As far as I know, this book comprises the first sustained attempt to examine the ways academic freedom and equity have been set at odds and to argue that academic freedom must be rethought and redefined along more politically progressive lines. Importantly, the authors propose practical ways in which a more clearly defined notion of academic freedom might be protected and operationalized within universities."

- Alison Hearn, University of Western Ontario

"This book asks what academic freedom means in the context of the corporate university, of disciplinary traditions based in racist epistemologies, and of social media–fueled political culture. Rebutting the tenets of liberal absolutism, the authors make a powerful case for a view of academic freedom rooted in faculty power and aligned with the imperatives of racial equity."

- Eva Cherniavsky,, author of Neocitizenship: Political Culture after Democracy

"The American professoriate and academy have changed dramatically since "academic freedom" was conceptualized in the first half of the twentieth century. But has it responded adequately to these changes, particularly as they relate to an increasingly multiracial democracy? This much-needed book provides thoughtful and compelling responses to this important question."

- Emily Houh,, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Race and Law in the United States

"In this important text, Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth explain how academic freedom differs from free speech and the role it must play in higher education if we are to achieve a multiracial democracy. A must read."

- Mark S. James, Molloy College
Johns Hopkins University Press
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