The importance of academic freedom


A talk given by Professor Dennis Hayes at Canterbury Christ Church University on Wednesday 2 November 2022.

It would be wrong to assume that everyone in the academy supports academic freedom. A major work by William F. Buckley, Jr., from 1952, God and Man at Yale is sub headed “The Superstitions of Academic Freedom” In one section of the book he talks about ‘The Hoax of Academic Freedom’

In the Forward he gives a brief account of his aim:

I shall go on to question what so many persons consider axiomatic, namely the proposition that “all sides should be presented impartially,” that the student should be encouraged to select the side that pleases him most. I hope to point out that this attitude, acknowledged in theory by the University, has never been practiced, and in fact, can never and ought never to be practiced. (Buckley 1952: lxii)

What he is attacking is academic freedom, the freedom to make up your own mind about all sides. The very freedom defended in a similar way a few weeks ago by the outgoing VC of the University of Oxford, Professor Louise Richardson, speaking to matriculating students in the Sheldonian:

Every single incoming student heard me, as they hear me every year, exhort them to adhere to the Augustinian precept: Audi alteram partem – hear the other side…

I tell them that they will hear views here with which they disagree, may even find offensive. But that they should engage with these ideas in an atmosphere that our colleague Tim Garton-Ash calls robust debate.

They should through reasoned debate, seek to change the other’s mind, and above all be open to having their own mind changed too. [My italics] (Richardson 2022)

Richardson has often spoken out attacks on free speech and was one of Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF)’s ‘Heroes’ of the month and is likely to be our ‘Hero’ for this October.

Buckley was a cold war warrior concerned with defending Christianity against Atheism and Individualism against Collectivism. Nevertheless, he makes a good case that Yale as a functioning bureaucracy did not abide by the principles of academic freedom it is supposed to uphold.  He gives us a lesson in inconsistency and hypocrisy that applies to all universities.

Before you dismiss this as an outdated example, there are modern Christian and other thinkers who believe academic freedom is a not just a hoax but is dangerous and immoral – See Patrick Deneen’s ‘Against Academic Freedom’ on the Post Liberal Order Substack. Arguing for a return to pre-Reformation Catholicism he echoes Buckley: ‘We ought to make our stand not on the deceptive quicksand of neutrality, but on the solid foundations of truth’ (Deneen 2022).

But there are different positions on academic freedom in Christian thought. We might look to (Saint) John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University for a defence of open enquiry but a more appropriate example for us, as we are at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Giving his installation address as Chancellor of the University on 12 December 2005 he reminded his audience of the

…resonant motto of this Institution: the truth shall make you free [Veritas Liberabit Vos]. You shall know the truth, says Christ in the Fourth Gospel, and the truth shall make you free, because not to know the truth is slavery, but also, to know the truth is to make a difference [My italics].

If you do not seek the truth your condition is one of intellectual slavery. But there are dangers in the pursuit of truth. Williams continues:

… those who have most advanced the picture of knowledge and truth across the centuries have regularly been people who are not safe or easy members of society, let alone of any academic institution. One person observing the record of genius across the centuries paraphrased the words of our Lord: ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd’ [my italics]

Williams ended with a discussion of the university as

…a place where people are free to recognise that they are asking the wrong questions, or at least, that there are many other questions that could be asked. In a community of learning all kinds of questions are and should be asked. There is no one single track by which the truth will uncover itself.

The academic needs to be told that the questions the world puts are not only academic ones. The person following training in skills needs to be reminded that the questions the world poses are not just about problem solving. And so the modern university has more opportunity than ever to be a place where we question our questions.

Perhaps the University could consider republishing the transcript of William’s unscripted talk? There is hardly a better account of what a (Christian) university should be.  That it is lost is a tragedy.

Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Some of you may be thinking – this is all about free speech and not academic freedom. Or as many people put it free speech is not the same as academic freedom.

If I had a pound for everyone who has told me as if they had discovered something I had somehow (stupidly) missed – that free speech is not the same as academic freedom – I would be a very rich man.

Academic Freedom is the fullest expression of free speech – you can see it as a continuum, but it is not just something we move beyond.  It is the essence of life in a university – academic life.

Academics forget this with their noses in the trough of the REF. They love the freedom to research, teach and to be part of management but free speech is for the pub.

Academics often talk as if you cannot say anything unless you back it up with research. This common assumption led to the clause in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that would have restricted academic freedom to speak unless it was based on an academics field of expertise. Happily, after many challenges this has been amended.

This assumption about the priority of research puts the cart before the horse. Let me explain why.

Freedom of speech is the pre-condition of research. If we replace ‘information’ with ‘research’ in Christopher Lash’s insight from The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy is as telling today as it was over two decades ago: 

What democracy requires is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by debate. We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of relevant information. Otherwise we take in information passively – if we take it in at all [my italics] (Lasch 1996:162-163).

Freedom of speech comes first. And we are return again to Rowan Williams’ emphasis on questioning – which, as the life and death of Socrates taught us, is the only way out of ignorance and hence of immorality. It is easy to forget this as academics get on with their academic work and the ongoing process of research.

Free Speech is the Foundational Freedom

Freedom of speech comes first not only in the academy but in life. It is the foundational freedom on which all other rest.

Professor Roy Harris, then the Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Oxford and the co-founder of Academics For Academic Freedom – provided a clear statement of why freedom of speech should have priority over all other freedoms:

‘The general rationale for giving priority to freedom of speech can be stated very succinctly. For any proposed freedom F, being free may turn out to be an illusion if there has been no opportunity to test the freedom claimed against contrary opinions. In short, we cannot know that we enjoy freedom F –we cannot even know what exercising that freedom would be – until F itself has been subjected to and survived unrestricted critical scrutiny. And that in turn requires freedom of speech. For if we rely on anything short of that, the freedom we had imagined we were exercising may be illusory’ [my italics] (Harris 2009:126).

In short, if you do not put your ideas forward for ‘unrestricted critical scrutiny’ you do not even know what freedom is and you may well be living a lie. You may, of course, have chosen something worse than intellectual slavery – total indifference to knowledge and the celebration of ignorance and you may turn to violence when challenged.

Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF)

I am speaking as a founder and director of AFAF. So allow me to say a few words about AFAF – and to clear up a misunderstanding that has been rife since 2010.

AFAF exists to defend free speech and academic freedom. We are not partisan. We make the point that we want people to hear the other side whether or not they, or we, agree with what is said.

In 2010 Ann Mroz (then the editor of the Times Higher Education magazine) claimed that ‘AFAF plays an important role in raising awareness, but it takes on only the few cases that suit its political agenda’.

I responded in a letter and said, ‘What differentiates AFAF from other bodies, such as the University and College Union, is precisely the opposite: it supports any academic whose freedom is under attack, whether it agrees with what they say or not’. (Mroz 11 February 2010 and Hayes 25 February 2010)

AFAF has defended hundreds of academics and students who have been threatened, disciplined, no-platformed or sacked. But we do not take any side but the side of freedom to speak – and the freedom to intellectually challenge speakers.  AFAF members have many different philosophies, political views and a variety of opinions on a wide range of issues. We reject any attempts to align our defence of free speech with any person’s speech that we defend.

Free speech in crisis

I am constantly asked ‘Is freedom of speech in crisis in universities?’  My answer is “Yes” but for different reasons than I would have given in the past. In the past the expression of particular views was threatened. Today, free speech itself is threatened and we need to return to the vision of the university Rowan Williams argued for.

To conclude: Buckley claims, later in his book, that if a university does not have clarity about its values it will succumb to every passing fashion. He was wrong about academic freedom but right about the danger of adopting fashionable values.

But if they are consistent and clear about academic freedom universities will – As Rowan Williams said of CCCU – be a place where free human beings can flourish and advertise freedom and humanity to the whole of the world, even at the cost of occasional oddity.


Buckley, W. F. ([1952] 1977) God and Man at Yale: “The Superstitions of Academic Freedom”, Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

Deneen, P. J. (2022) Against Academic Freedom, 17 March accessed 1 November 2022).

Harris, R. (2009) Freedom of Speech and Philosophy of Education, British Journal of Educational Studies, 57 (2) June 2009: 111-126.

Lasch, C. (1996) The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Ann Mroz, (2010) Rise up, freedom fighters, Times Higher Education, 11 February 2010. Letter in reply, 25 February 2010: accessed 1 November 2022).

Richardson, L. (2022) Introduction, On History and Statesmanship. The Scruton Lectures, held at The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 19th October 2022.

Williams, R. (2005) The Chancellor’s Installation Address at Canterbury Christ Church University, 12 December 2005 (Unscripted talk). [A PDF is available on request]

(Photo Credit: Dennis Hayes)

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