How free is Freedom of Speech in academia?

I’ve been hearing a lot about freedom of speech for scientists these last few weeks, inspired mainly by the efforts of the new US government to silence scientists and state employees, particularly on the topic of climate change. It’s been interesting: I’ve learned about what rights government employees have when it comes to freedom of speech, read some interesting comparisons with Canadian science (where government researchers were in a similar bind under the Harper administration, some good reads here and here), absolutely loved the “rogue” National Park Service twitter accounts and of course, I’m looking forward to the March For Science in April. I truly believe that Freedom of Speech should be a thing. Government agencies (or academic institutions in general) should not have the right to gag scientists based on idealogical or political interests.


Speech by PineLife via flickr.

However, there’s this thing that’s been kind of bugging me: I remember the Tim Hunt scandal two years ago (in case you don’t remember, you can read more here and a follow-up from 6 months later) and the Jim Watson one before that, when everyone was up in arms that renown, Nobel-prize-winning, member-of-a-gazillion-scientific organisations-and-boards scientists should NOT be allowed to say certain things. Which makes me wonder: what exactly are the rules of free speech for scientists?You might say that there are obvious differences: in one case freedom of speech refers to scientific content, in the other to how someone is perceived to value/values women/black people. Also, in the first case there is an actual legal gag put on scientists, whereas in the other case Tim Hunt/Jim Watson were technically allowed to say what they wanted and just had to live with the consequences. And I get all that.

But that’s a slippery arguments, and it remains unclear to me what exactly a scientist is allowed to say ? Is it whatever is currently acceptable according to most people (eg. sexist/racist remarks would have probably been much more mainstream 50 years ago)? But isn’t that just mob rule and AGAINST the whole point of freedom of speech?

Next, let’s assume that there is a good rule about what should or should not be included in free speech: in what context does that rule apply? You’d probably say that such rules would only apply when a scientist is acting in an official capacity. But for so many of us our careers are an integral part of our lives, so when are we really doing anything “off the books”? Consider this scenario: you are a scientist, and are on holiday somewhere. You find out that there will be an exciting seminar in your field at closeby University X. Your former postdoc is now a group leader at University X, so you arrange a visit**. Before the seminar she proudly introduces you as her mentor who is now a professor at Institute Y. At the end of the talk you get into a heated debate with the speaker and say something horribly offensive that is not in line with the freedom-of-speech rules at Institute Y. Would this count as unofficial business? After all you were on holiday? But then again, your former student introduced you as a professor from Institute Y. If you didn’t explicitly specify that you were there as a private person, wouldn’t that put you there as an official representative? I can come up with a million scenarios like this…


Speak up, make your voice heard by Howard Lake via flickr.

Finally, let’s say we have good guidelines for both WHAT and WHEN to say it. What if someone thinks you’ve broken these rules? Who gets to decide if that’s really the case and what the repercussions should be? What will the format of such an assessment be? I thought about this problem a lot during the Tim Hunt scandal, because I felt that various institutions initially tried to respond to public pressure as quickly as possible, without a proper hearing. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing: If you’re not certain you’ll get a fair trial, won’t that keep you from expressing yourself freely to begin with?

I am not trying to take a stand here. But as someone who’s hoping for a career in academia these thoughts leave me somewhat queasy. It worries me, because there seem to be no clear rules (or at least I am not aware of them). Yet for Freedom of Speech to thrive one needs to know that at least the “system” has your back, even when maybe the mainstream opinion does not.


*Yes, yes, I know. What on Earth were you doing arranging that visit. Weren’t you supposed to be on HOLIDAY????


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