Happy International Academic Freedom Day!

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Today, Monday 20 May, is International Academic Freedom Day (IAFD). The idea for such a day was proposed at the Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) National Conference in November last year. What was surprising was that there was no such day already listed in the calendar. It seems that academic freedom was not deemed worthy of celebrating, even for a day – even though every other day seems to be a celebration of something trivial.

Why 20 May?

On 20 May 1806, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill was born. Mill is the author of On Liberty (1859) which is still essential reading for all lovers of freedom today. The writers for the Days of Year calendar suggest celebrating International Academic Freedom Day by sitting down to read On Liberty. At least one AFAF branch is holding a discussion of Chapter 2, ‘Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion’, and we recommend reading it – even if you have read it before. Perhaps a copy of On Liberty should be given to all incoming students, academics and professional staff on campus?

Why do we need an International Academic Freedom Day?

Academic Freedom seems to be in a constant state of crisis. The two most important of these crises are the right of academics to hold ‘gender-critical’ views, and the need to uphold academic freedom and free speech as academics, students and universities respond to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Gender-critical academics who want to make the simple factual declaration that biological sex is real find themselves threatened and hounded out of their jobs. A few brave individuals, such as Jo Phoenix (pictured with me below), have shown that you can win in the courts – but it can come at great personal cost. Academics should not have to go to the courts to win the right not to be bullied and harassed for their views. We wait to see if universities will take note of the judgement in Jo’s case, and we have to thank gender-critical feminists like her for taking up the cause of academic freedom and creating a real debate about free speech across the UK and Ireland.

Dennis Hayes and Jo Phoenix

With campuses across the world witnessing protests about the Israel-Palestine conflict, defending academic freedom and free speech has become harder than ever. Some long-time supporters of free speech now take a more censorious stand for views they dislike.

Worse still, rather than uphold what is known as the Kalven Principle of institutional neutrality, universities have crumbled under pressure to take sides, make statements and consider academic and other boycotts of Israel. This is not their role. Their responsibility is to ensure the academic freedom and free speech of their staff and students on this and other issues.

These remain the major, contemporary battlefields for academic freedom and free speech in 2024. Today is a day to remember that these struggles are not over.

Just one day for academic freedom?

Cynics ask what is the point of having just one day a year to celebrate academic freedom when it should be celebrated every day of the year? That is true, but ‘academic freedom’ is a lost value in many universities. It might appear in policy statements and governing documents, but the term seems rare in daily vocabulary.

Universities celebrate many ‘days of the year’, but seem to forget about the over-riding importance of academic freedom. Getting campuses up and down the country to mark and celebrate IAFD will serve as a reminder that without academic freedom they are not worthy of being called a ‘university’.

We are not just one-day wonders. The main supporters of IAFD are organisations that defend academic freedom and free speech day after day. They include: Akademische FreiheitAlumni For Free SpeechFree Speech IrelandFree Speech UnionFree Speech WalesFoundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR)Liberté AcadémiqueMovement For a Free AcademiaSpeak Easy and SAGES.

What can you do to mark IAFD?

Share this Substack, share our special entry on the Days of the Year page on social media and follow the IAFD page on the AFAF website and join in activities near you.


If you are an academic, a student, a professional staff member or a graduate, you can make a public statement of your support for academic freedom by signing the AFAF Statement.

Happy International Academic Freedom Day!

This piece was published as an Academy of Ideas Substack on 20 May 2024. Do follow and subscribe!

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