KIEJ Takes on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech

The latest issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (KIEJ) is a special issue focusing on freedom of speech and academic freedom. The issue’s Guest Editors, Barrett Emerick and Shannon Dea, graciously answered our questions on the issue’s origin and content. The entire issue, "Expressive and Academic Freedom in Context: Rights, Responsibilities, and Harms" has been made freely available on Project MUSE through the month of July. 

How did this special issue on Expressive and Academic Freedom come about?

In 2018 we organized a panel on “Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, Equity & Civility” with Alice MacLachlan for the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy (CSWIP) at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. The topic was prompted by some recent events on campuses in both the U.S. and Canada, with which we had all been involved in one way or another. We saw the CSWIP panel as a good opportunity to explore some of the philosophical issues at the heart of the so-called culture wars with a friendly audience of feminist philosophers. We had a great experience, and our talks were well-received. After the panel, Kate Norlock urged us to publish our papers as a special issue and early on suggested KIEJ as a venue. We’re so glad she did!

How did you come to be this issue's Guest Editors? 

Among the speakers from the CSWIP panel, the two of us kind of organically took the lead because work on the special issue coincided with some available time in our schedules. Barrett approached KIEJ editor Quill Kukla to pitch the idea, and then Barrett and Shannon each pitched in as they were able over the course of the project. Our final task was co-authoring the introduction. That was a very nice experience for us. We had been involved in a couple of panels together and really admire each other’s work, but this was our first time writing something together. It won’t be our last!

Was there a call for papers?

No, we chose not to do a call because we really only had room for two papers over and above the three from the initial CSWIP panel. We had a pretty good idea of the gaps we wanted those papers to fill and so went looking for authors who were already working in the area and invited them to join us. We were excited and grateful to have Susan Brison and Audrey Yap join the project. While there was no CFP, all of the papers in the issue were anonymously refereed.

This issue was put together during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. What was your biggest challenge as editors? 

So many things were harder and took more time during COVID-19. We don’t think putting the issue together was itself made more difficult, but everyone’s energy and time were in short supply more generally. Some of our authors had heavy caring responsibilities over the course of the project. A couple of us had heavy academic administration roles that became more complex and demanding in the pandemic. Most of the authors had the demanding task of remote teaching. These various challenges sometimes made it hard for the authors to work on their papers, either for the initial submission or at later stages. We had originally aimed at a 2020 publication date, but the delays caused by the pandemic pushed us into 2021.

In your introduction, you note that you hope that "this special issue can be of use, both in adjudicating the current conflict in the various contexts in which it arises" - who do you hope will benefit from a close reading of the essays in this issue?

BE: As we note in our introduction, anxiety about things like “cancel culture” and “safe spaces” is just the most recent incarnation of an old worry about conflicts between free speech and scholarly inquiry, on one hand, and the harm that one might do to others in exercising those freedoms, on the other. The articles in this issue help to make sense of that worry and offer nuanced accounts of what we should do in light of it. I hope that the articles in this issue will be of use, both to academics and non-academics, who are concerned with free speech, higher education, and our collective pursuit of knowledge.

SD: Yeah, and I’d add that I think there is a particular opportunity for both academic administrators and members of the media who cover stories about culture and academia to better understand some of these nuances in order to start to move past the false choice between equity and free speech. That understanding is especially crucial right now as a new panic about critical race theory is playing out in various pieces of state legislation that limit academic and expressive freedom in appalling and unprecedented ways.

Can you give us an example of how the debate surrounding expressive and academic freedoms has come into play in your own life?

SD: A couple of years ago, a student free speech club invited white supremacists to my campus to give talks. I wanted to find a way to support BIPOC students, faculty and staff without creating more press for the event by “deplatforming” it. So, I worked with my faculty association to create a crowd-funding campaign in which people angry about the event could donate to Black and Indigenous student groups to express their support of those students and their outrage about the event. In the end, the event was canceled by the organizers and the media stories that ran focused on the way the community came together rather than on the narrative of a campus free speech crisis. 

BE: In recent years my school (like many others) has had a number of instances of racist speech with which we had to reckon. Those instances inspired conversations across campus about the harms of such speech, how we want to understand local norms around such speech, and when such speech should be curtailed. Those conversations led me to write a paper called “The Violence of Silencing” in 2019. My paper for the CSWIP panel and for the KIEJ special issue was in many ways a sequel, in which I tried to answer for myself some of the hard questions that had arisen in those conversations.

What are you currently working on? Any upcoming research or book(s) you'd like to tell us about?

BE: I’m currently coauthoring a book with Audrey Yap on moral solidarity, moral repair, and restorative justice. We develop an anti-carceral, anti-racist feminism that recognizes some of the ways in which desires for vengeance or retribution obscure larger structural problems by casting wrongdoers out of the moral community and into the role of villain or monster – just individual bad apples to be thrown away. Instead, we argue that actually holding wrongdoers responsible for what they have done means recognizing that they are moral agents who are not reducible to their past wrongs but can instead choose to go in a new way. We argue that society should be structured in a way that enables that moral growth and the opportunity for moral repair.

SD: Once upon a time, this was supposed to be a sabbatical year for me, in which I would write a book about academic freedom. However, in September, I started a new job as a Dean of Arts; so, I think the book is no longer likely. However, I’ve been working on a number of smaller projects. I have a book chapter about to drop that argues that much refrainment from speech isn’t really self-censorship -- that such refrainment is often morally neutral or praiseworthy. I am working on other short pieces on academic freedom and the media, American pragmatism and feminism, and the metaphysics of gender. As well, I’m under contract to revise and expand my 2016 book Beyond the Binary: Thinking about Sex and Gender. Finally, I am continuing to write my regular column on academic freedom for University Affairs, and have on the boil a couple of other think-pieces about issues in higher ed.

Shannon Dea is a Professor in the Philosophy and Classics Department and Dean of Arts at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. She works on feminist, social and applied philosophy, and the history of philosophy. Shannon is the author of the Dispatches on Academic Freedom column in University Affairs

Barrett Emerick is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. He writes and teaches about normative ethics, moral psychology, and social justice. He recently published a chapter called "Love, Activism, and Social Justice," in Love, Justice, and Autonomy: Philosophical Perspectives (Routledge) edited by Rachel Fedock, Michael Kühler, and T. Raja Rosenhagen. He is currently coauthoring a monograph on moral solidarity, moral repair, and restorative justice.