Is academic freedom always defensible?

PaTHES, in collaboration with the Philosophy SIG at the American Education Research Association (AERA) are proud to invite you to the following webinar:

Date:    11 May 2023

Time:    11am ET/8am PT in the US/4-5pm in Europe/6pm in SA

Registration Link

Academic freedom, and its ensuing controversies, have long served as one of the paradigmatic foundations of the university. Not only as an unrelenting commitment in pursuing and expressing ideas and arguments, but also as an interrogation of truth claims. There is something nobly inspirational, contained in Derrida’s (2005, p. 253) claims ‘nothing is beyond question, not even the current and determined figure of democracy, and not even the traditional idea of critique’. The inexhaustibility of academic freedom is as apparent in the generation of new knowledge, the debunking of new ideas, as it is in the interrogation of power, and indeed, what constitutes ‘the truth’ in a world where truth claims are as fleeting as tweets – shared and liked one minute, only to be removed, the next. Amid the clamour for our rights to be speak/heard and write/read, is the rage of a global society, who, at times, (un)mistakenly, take their cues from truth towers of the university – alerting us to the intricate web of responsibilities between the university and societies. The university, therefore, is not only a space where ideas are openly traded (Barnett, 2016), but a space which should be equally concerned about social justice (Giroux, 2007). That academic freedom has been increasingly eroded over the last few decades (Malik, 2015), should alert us not only to acceptance of censorship and conformity, but to the interpretation of censorship as a progressive act (Malik, 2015).

This webinar constitutes the first collaboration between the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education society (PaTHES) and the Philosophy SIG of the American Educational Research Association (AREA).  Firstly, the topic of academic freedom provides an ideal space not only for deliberation and debate, but for how we conceive of the university in relation to its multifaceted responsibilities.  Secondly. while most of us would like to believe in a university’s unconditional commitment to academic freedom, there are increasing patterns of censorship, curtailment and ‘academic disinvitation’, which bring into question the university’s defense of academic freedom.


Barnett, R. (2016). Understanding the university: Institution, idea, possibilities. London: Routledge.

Derrida, J. 2004. Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2. Translated and edited by J. Plug, & Others. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Giroux, H. A. (2007). The university in chains. Boulder: Paradigm.

Malik, K. (2015). Diverse societies should not curtail free speech.

Keynote presentation by Prof Sigal Ben-Porath

Sigal Ben-Porath is professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is also a member of the philosophy and the political science departments, and a fellow at the Institute for Law and Philosophy. She received her doctorate in political philosophy from Tel-Aviv university in 2000, and was a fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, Tel-Aviv University’s Safra Center for Ethics, and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Her recent books are Cancel Wars (Chicago 2022), Free Speech on Campus (Penn Press, 2017) as well as Making Up Our Mind (with Michael Johanek, Chicago 2019).  She chaired Penn’s Committee on Open Expression 2015-2019, and serves on the board of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. In recent years she has offered guidance to many campuses on policy development and responses to controversies surrounding speech.

Cancel Wars: Protecting Free Speech and Inclusion in a Polarized Age


Many democracies today are experiencing rapid political polarization. This process affects multiple facets of society, from policy views to our views about who belongs in society, from where we get our information to the way we perceive public institutions. Polarization creates a sense of distance and resentment toward those who do not share our views. Significantly, the boundaries of what we can say in public – norms around speech, freedom of expression, and the consequences for transgressing – are shifting with the rise in polarization. In this talk, Sigal Ben-Porath – author of the recent book Cancel Wars – illustrates these changing norms in their political and social contexts, and focuses on the ways in which higher education institutions are affected by them. She argues that as flashpoints of the current culture wars, colleges and universities can and should take an active role in challenging, and even reversing, these trends. The actions suggested in this talk, ones that students, faculty, and administrators can take, are designed to spark depolarization, and thus support democratic renewal on campus and throughout society.

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