Academic Freedom and the Rule of Law

Summary by Teodora Miljojkovic.

In the latest RevDem Rule of Law podcast, Oliver Garner interviews Professor Nandini Ramanujam, Full Professor at the Faculty of Law of McGill University and the Co-Director of the Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, where she supervises the academic freedom monitoring clinic. The topic of the podcast is the interplay of the concepts of academic freedom and the rule of law, in both liberal and illiberal societies. Professor Ramanujam and Vishakha Wijenayake, Doctoral Candidate at the Faculty of Law, McGill University and an O’Brien Fellow at CHRLP, discussed this theme in a recent RevDem op-ed

What is the theoretical connection between academic freedom and the rule of law? Is the rule of law principle required to ensure academic freedom?

Professor Ramanujam draws a comparison with the field of rule of law and development, her primary area of work. Rule of law, as an idea emerging already in Ancient Greece but historically developing in the Western liberal context, is always concerned with delineating power relations. Theoretically speaking, the rule of law could be perceived as an end in itself. However, through the development lens, it acquires a more instrumental nature, as the means to achieve a socially desirable goal. Some of the necessary conditions for building the rule of law are legal culture but also political and economic conditions. Scholarship can establish “only a tenuous relationship between the rule of law and development, as it is a classic chicken and the egg problem”. According to Professor Ramanujam, the same framework could be extended to the examination of academic freedom. 

Similarly to the rule of law, the concept of academic freedom has emerged from Western European liberal thought, and it is difficult to discern its meaning solely from its historical underpinnings. 

Liberal democracies are built on respect for the rule of law, but also the values of fundamental rights and democracy which together create a “tripod” platform for the exercise of academic freedom. 

Academic freedom in a substantive sense is not possible without civil and political freedoms but it also requires the minimal guarantees of the rule of law. The rule of law places constraints on arbitrary power and its procedural safeguards prevent threats to academic freedom, primarily from state authorities. In turn, academic freedom facilitates intellectual debate and critique of entrenched values, and fosters the ideological plurality that is vital for the flourishing of democratic societies that adhere to the rule of law. In that sense, the academic freedom cannot be protected without the minimal guarantees of the rule of law, and vice-versa, without academic freedom it would be difficult to foster a democratic and open society that adheres to the rule of law. 

Are threats to academic freedom outside Hungary, Poland and Russia examples of the same phenomena of possible autocratic capture, or are there distinct explanations? Could the threat to academic freedom spread to Western Europe? 

As Professor Ramanujam emphasizes, threats to academic freedom have been visible throughout history and across various societies, even acclaimed liberal democracies such as Canada or the US, driven by different factors (e.g. race, gender, ideology). The rapid diversification of Western societies, due to globalization and migration, sparked fear of erosion of cultural identity across different countries, which is not so different from the popular sentiment in Hungary and Poland. Nowadays, the factors underlying the urge to limit academic freedom are much more complex than in the past and although the threats in the other liberal democracies which adhere to the rule of law are not as visible and detrimental as, for example, in Hungary in Poland, that does not mean that vigilance is not needed. 

“Perhaps Western liberal states are doing well in terms of the rule of law adherence, at least de jure, but that doesn’t mean we should feel comfortable in asserting that academic liberties may not come under threat”, Professor Ramanujam points out. 

Finally, are there justified limits of academic freedom, for the purpose of protecting other public goods and values?

Professor Ramanujam states that academic freedom is not absolute as its purpose is to pursue truth and knowledge for the good of society. Curtailing academic freedom would impede rather than facilitate the process of informed deliberations, the key tool to realise the goal of improving public good. However, freedoms always come with responsibilities and obligations. Academic freedom is already guided by universities’ rules, regulations and customs and as long as the principles of academic freedom are respected by all stakeholders, the larger public good can be served. 

The key thing to remember, Professor Ramanujam emphasizes, is that academic freedom is the guarantee to individual academics, while the safeguards of institutional autonomy are meant to serve the larger public good. 

“University is a community of inquiry and university sits within the larger community, which is our society, and no longer just our immediate society but a global one. The empowerment which comes with academic freedoms obliges us to use this freedom responsibly, for advancing the well-being of society, the global society”. 

With that in mind, the debate on whether it would be desirable to impose curtailments to academic freedom in order to reach some other societal goal is hard to have, as this freedom already comes with a lot of responsibilities and restrictions within the academy.

Summary by Teodora Miljojkovic.

(Image Credit: Lysanne Larose)

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