Frames:
CHOPPY WATERS ARE FORECAST FOR ACADEMIC FREE SPEECH

RACHEL E. FUGATE[*]

Copyright © 1998 Florida State University Law Review

I. INTRODUCTION
II. ACADEMIC FREEDOM DEFINED
A. The Professional Definition
B. The Constitutional Definition
1. Beginning of a Constitutional Definition
2. Majority Approval
III. THE PUBLIC EMPLOYEE DOCTRINE
A. A Balancing Approach
B. Synthesis of the Pickering Standard
1. Protected Speech, Causation, and Burden of Proof
2. Forum Impact on the Pickering Test
3. Public Concern as a Threshold Matter and the Potential for Disruption
4. A Brief Respite from the Potential for Disruption
IV. APPLYING THE PUBLIC EMPLOYEE DOCTRINE TO THE ACADEMIC CONTEXT
A. Out-of-Class Speech
B. Classroom Speech
V. A DOCTRINE IN DISARRAY: WATERS V. CHURCHILL
VI. IMPLICATIONS OF WATERS ON HIGHER EDUCATION
VII. CHARTING A COURSE TO PROTECT ACADEMIC FREEDOM
A. The Necessity of Preserving Academic Freedom
B. A New Test for Academic Freedom
VIII. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

Academic freedom constitutes the core of a university. In its most basic form, academic freedom gives a university professor the right to teach free of censorship and meddling by the university administration and other faculty members.[1] Although this basic concept seems to hold near universal acceptance,[2] the United States Supreme Court has developed a line of cases in the past few years that pose a threat to this liberty.[3]

In 1968 the Court recognized the free speech rights of public employees.[4] In subsequent years, the Court developed and refined the level of protection public employees' speech receives under the First Amendment.[5] The Court, however, did not address whether this limited standard applied to academic free speech in public universities. Recently, the restrictive public employee doctrine has clashed with the virtues of academic freedom, with the loser being the academic community.

This Comment analyzes the academic freedom rights, or lack thereof, enjoyed by professors at public institutions. Part II reviews the historical background and development of academic freedom. Part III describes the synthesis of the public employee free speech doctrine by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Part IV applies the doctrine to the academic context. Part V examines the Supreme Court's recent alteration and limitation of the public employee speech doctrine, and Part VI analyzes the possible implications the restriction of the doctrine could have on academia. Finally, Part VII discusses the importance of academic freedom and proposes a standard for professorial speech that recognizes and protects academic freedom.

II. ACADEMIC FREEDOM DEFINED

The roots of academic freedom derive from two distinct but complimentary sources. One definition of academic freedom is based upon a professional model promulgated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and has become the standard creed in academia.[6] The U.S. Supreme Court developed a second, constitutional definition[7] recognizing academic freedom as a "special concern" of the First Amendment.[8]

A. The Professional Definition

In the late 1800s, professors were often fired for something they wrote or said.[9] This trend of punishing professors for their opinions prompted the AAUP to form a committee to "bring the institutional status of academic professionals up to the level their scholarly renown had earned."[10] Thus, in the 1915 General Declaration of Principles (1915 Declaration), the AAUP established the first comprehensive definition of academic freedom in America.[11] The thrust of the 1915 Declaration was that academic freedom is essential to the success of post-secondary education.[12]

The 1915 Declaration relied on the German concept of academic freedom for guidance.[13] The German ideal of academic freedom encompassed three principles: Lehrfreiheit, Lernfreiheit, and Freiheit der Wissenschaft.[14] Lehrfreiheit embraced the notion of "teaching freedom" and allowed professors to determine the content of their lectures and to publish the results of their research without prior approval.[15] In contrast, Lernfreiheit meant "learning freedom" and obviated any control a university had over a student's course of study.[16] Finally, Freiheit der Wissenschaft permitted academic self-governance and allowed the university control of its internal affairs, which was claimed an essential protection to freedom of teaching and research.[17] Concentrating on Lehrfreiheit, or the freedom to teach, the committee wrote Lernfreiheit and Freiheit der Wissenschaft out of its 1915 Declaration.[18]

By focusing on Lehrfreiheit, the committee emphasized its commitment to the principle that professors should be able to teach and publish without fear of or interference from the administration, thus furthering a university's mission to "advance the sum of human knowledge."[19] A university also provides "general instruction for students;" therefore, professors cannot properly perform their educational functions when they do not express themselves "fully or frankly" or when students perceive professors as a "repressed and intimidated class."[20] Finally, the committee noted that universities cultivate "experts for public service;" thus, professors "must enjoy . . . complete confidence in the disinterestedness of [their] conclusions."[21]

The 1915 Declaration included one remarkable difference from the German notion of Lehrfreiheit. Lehrfreiheit's protection only encompassed what professors were qualified, authorized, and trained to do.[22] The 1915 Declaration's umbrella of protection did not extend merely to fields in which a professor was trained and qualified, but also included protection for academic utterances that did not fall within a professor's expertise.[23] Therefore, the report "labeled as 'undesirable' any effort to debar academic scholars 'from giving expression to their judgments upon controversial subjects,' or to limit their public comments 'to questions falling within their specialties,' or to deprive them in general of 'the political rights vouchsafed to every citizen.'"[24]

Throughout the 1915 Declaration, the committee indicated that university administrators posed the most serious threat to academic freedom.[25] The 1915 Declaration emphasized that a true university "should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world."[26] The 1915 Declaration further stressed that a university that deprived its faculty members of academic freedom was not a university at all, but a proprietary institution existing "for the propagation of specific doctrines prescribed by those who have furnished its endowment" and as such should not receive public support.[27] Accordingly, the AAUP recognized the academic rather than the academy under a newly created "profession-centered" definition of academic freedom.[28]

The 1915 Declaration has withstood the test of time as the benchmark of academic freedom. The definition has been codified and recodified by the AAUP, endorsed by more than 100 professional associations, and incorporated into the handbooks and bylaws of many American colleges and universities.[29] Although the 1915 Declaration is the paradigm of academic freedom in the United States, it is an example of "soft law."[30] Generally policed by the AAUP, the 1915 Declaration is not enforced by the courts.[31] Thus, the concept of academic freedom needed a basis in "hard law," such as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.[32]

B. The Constitutional Definition

The courts originally viewed academic freedom as the "freedom to do good and not to teach evil."[33] The concept did not receive serious attention from the courts until the mid-1950s amidst a rash of government investigations of alleged communist conspiracies.[34] Judicial reaction to the government's efforts to purge allegedly insurgent teachers positioned the academic freedom issue at the forefront of a constitutional debate.[35]

The Supreme Court's recognition that the First Amendment specifically protects academic freedom[36] is significant because it would not have been difficult for the Court to reject this notion.[37] The First Amendment is perceived to afford equal protection to all citizens.[38] For example, the First Amendment specifically mentions special protection of the press; however, this protection has been interpreted as granting no extraordinary rights over those enjoyed by other citizens.[39] Nonetheless, constitutionalizing academic freedom necessitated creating a First Amendment right unique to professors.

1. Beginning of a Constitutional Definition

The term "academic freedom" first appeared in Supreme Court jurisprudence in Adler v. Board of Education.[40] In Adler, the Supreme Court examined the constitutionality of New York's Feinberg Law, a sedition law that promoted the removal of any public employee who belonged to an organization that advocated the overthrow of the government by forceful, violent, or illegal means.[41] Although the majority concluded that the statute did not violate the First Amendment rights of the teachers,[42] Justice Douglas, in his dissenting opinion, conceived a theory of academic freedom that was later to be accepted by a majority of the Court.[43] What is most notable about Justice Douglas' dissent is not that academic freedom is mentioned for the first time but, rather, that it is identified as a subset of the First Amendment.[44] Justice Douglas stated that "[t]he Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and expression to everyone in our society. . . . None needs it more than the teacher."[45]

The same year the Court decided Adler, it held unconstitutional an Oklahoma statute requiring public employees to take a loyalty oath that they had not associated with specific organizations.[46] This case arose when faculty and staff members of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College refused to subscribe to the required oath.[47] The Court distinguished Adler by claiming that, unlike the Feinberg Law, the statute in question excluded persons from state employment based solely on membership in an organization, regardless of any knowledge of the organization's purpose.[48] In his concurring opinion, Justice Frankfurter stated that teachers "must have the freedom of responsible inquiry, by thought and action, into the meaning of social and economic ideas, into the checkered history of social and economic dogma."[49] Thus, academic freedom emerged into Supreme Court jurisprudence through dissenting and concurring opinions but had yet to win acceptance by a majority of the Court.

2. Majority Approval

A majority of the Court recognized the virtues of academic freedom in Sweezy v. New Hampshire.[50] This case arose when the New Hampshire attorney general, acting pursuant to his authority to investigate subversive activities, subpoenaed Sweezy, a college professor, to answer questions about his lectures.[51] Sweezy refused to answer certain questions and was convicted of contempt.[52]

Writing for the plurality, Chief Justice Warren concluded that the Attorney General's directive violated Sweezy's right to academic freedom and political expression.[53] The Court explained in an oft-quoted paragraph:

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any straight jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.[54]
Sweezy is not regarded as an academic freedom case per se because it was ultimately decided on narrower grounds and the language emphasizing the importance of protecting academic freedom was stated in dicta. Nonetheless, a majority of the Court shared the opinion that academic freedom was essential to American society.[55] Yet, it would be another ten years before the Court specifically linked academic freedom to the First Amendment.

In 1967 the Court decided Keyishian v. Board of Regents[56] and declared that academic freedom is a "special concern of the First Amendment."[57] Keyishian involved the Feinberg Law upheld in Adler, which required state university faculty members to sign an affidavit stating that they were not communists.[58] The Court held that the law was unconstitutionally vague.[59] Announcing its commitment to academic freedom, the Court wrote, "Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to teachers concerned."[60]

Keyishian is important because a majority of the Court explicitly recognized academic freedom as a special subset of the First Amendment. Furthermore, the language in both Sweezy and Keyishian emphasized the importance of critical inquiry in universities, not just for teachers, but for society as a whole. Thus, academic freedom traveled a long way from its inception in the courts as the "freedom to do good and not to teach evil."[61]

Nevertheless, in a line of recent cases, the Supreme Court severely restricted the free speech rights of public employees, including teachers. Such restrictions question the Court's commitment to an academic freedom it described as "of transcendent value to all of us."[62] The Supreme Court has not specifically retreated from its commitment to protecting academic freedom as a special concern of the First Amendment; however, academic freedom cases must now be viewed in light of the Court's general aversion towards public employee free speech.

III. THE PUBLIC EMPLOYEE DOCTRINE

Public employees traditionally had no First Amendment free speech rights.[63] The famous pronouncement of former Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Holmes' regarding a policeman's free speech rights summed up the courts' stance on such issues: "[He] may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman."[64] The Supreme Court retreated from this broad position in 1968, recognizing that public employees' speech deserves some protection under the First Amendment.[65]

A. A Balancing Approach

In Pickering v. Board of Education,[66] the Supreme Court, for the first time, held that public employees do not forsake their First Amendment rights simply because the government is their employer. This landmark case involved the free speech rights of public employees and concerned a public high school teacher who wrote a letter that was published in the local newspaper criticizing the school board's handling of funds.[67] The school board determined that the letter was disruptive to the school's operation and administration and dismissed the teacher accordingly.[68] The Supreme Court held that the dismissal violated Pickering's free speech rights.[69] The Court emphasized that when the government acts as an employer regulating the speech of its employees, its interest differs greatly from when it seeks to regulate the speech of its citizens as a sovereign.[70] Thus, a court must balance the interests of the employee as a citizen in speaking on matters of public concern with the interest of the government in the efficient operation of the public services it performs.[71] However, the Court was not required to "balance" these respective interests in this case because it found that Pickering's comments did not have an effect on the efficient operation of the school district.[72]

The Court noted some factors that should be considered in balancing a public employee's free speech rights against the government's interest in the efficient operation of its services: whether the speech interfered with a supervisor's ability to maintain discipline or harmony among co-workers; the level of disruption caused by the disputed behavior; and the type of relationship between the employee, the school board, and the superintendent.[73] However, the Court did not identify what interests a public employee, much less a teacher, would have in commenting on matters of public concern, nor did it outline the parameters of public concern.

In applying a public employee free speech balancing approach to professors, the Court did not discuss academic freedom. The Court stated that teachers may not "be compelled to relinquish the First Amendment rights they would otherwise enjoy as citizens to comment on matters of public interest in connection with the operation of the public schools in which they work."[74] Pickering did not address if and how to apply academic freedom in such a context. Accordingly, the vigilant protection of academic freedom as a special concern of the First Amendment went largely unrealized.

B. Synthesis of the Pickering Standard

In the years following Pickering, the Court further refined the standard that applied to public employee free speech cases. The result was a restrictive, yet clear, test that acknowledged a very limited First Amendment right to public employee free speech.

1. Protected Speech, Causation, and Burden of Proof

Mount Healthy Board of Education v. Doyle[75] clarified and added to the standard adopted in Pickering. In Mount Healthy, an untenured teacher was discharged after he telephoned a local radio station and revealed the substance of a memorandum linking teacher appearance and dress to public support for school bond issues.[76] The Court determined that the speech deserved First Amendment protection without first deciding whether that speech regarded a matter of public concern.[77] In the Court's view, the dispositive factor was whether the telephone call was a substantial or motivating factor in the teacher's dismissal.[78]

The Court vacated the lower court decision and remanded to establish whether the school board could prove that it would have reached the same decision regarding Doyle's reinstatement absent the protected conduct.[79] The Court expressed concern that an employer should not be hindered in evaluating employee performance records simply because the employer's decision is reinforced by the protected conduct.[80] Thus, the Court clarified the Pickering test by placing the initial burden on the plaintiff to demonstrate that his conduct is constitutionally protected.[81] The Court added to Pickering by requiring that if the plaintiff can show his speech is protected, he must prove the protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor underlying the adverse action.[82] Finally, if the plaintiff can meet this burden, the defendant must be given the opportunity to show that, although the conduct may have influenced the decision, the defendant would have reached the same conclusion, even in the absence of the protected conduct.[83]

2. Forum Impact on the Pickering Test

In Givhan v. Consolidated School District,[84] the Court addressed whether the Pickering balancing test applies to public employees when they speak in private contexts.[85] Givhan, a junior high school teacher, was dismissed because she expressed her concerns about school employment policies that she considered racially discriminatory in a private meeting with the school principal.[86] The Supreme Court found in favor of the teacher and rejected the notion that comments made by a public employee in a private context were not protected by the First Amendment.[87]

In previous public employee free speech cases, the public employees spoke through public channels.[88] Givhan was the first case in which the Court was asked to address whether the same test applied to a public employee speaking through private channels. The Court stated that "[w]hile those cases each arose in the context of a public employee's public expression, the rule to be derived from them is not dependent on that largely coincidental fact."[89] Givhan's contribution to the public employee doctrine is that the doctrine does not hinge on the forum in which the employee chooses to speak, but that the First Amendment protects public employees who choose to communicate their views privately rather than publicly.[90]

3. Public Concern as a Threshold Matter and the Potential for Disruption

Connick v. Myers[91] was the first major public employee free speech case that did not involve a public school teacher. Although Connick severely restricts the public employee free speech doctrine, many courts cite Connick when explaining the application of the Pickering balancing test, even in the public education context.[92]

The issue presented in Connick was whether Pickering protects a public employee from being discharged for speech concerning internal office affairs.[93] Myers, an assistant district attorney, was scheduled for a transfer to a different section of the criminal court.[94] Myers expressed her opposition to the transfer to many of her supervisors and circulated a questionnaire concerning the office transfer policy and other office policies.[95]

The Court established that as a threshold matter, public employee speech must be of a public concern, or relate to any political, social, or community concern to qualify for First Amendment protection.[96] If Myers' speech was not on a matter of public concern, then it was not protected and the Court need not inquire as to the reason for her discharge.[97]

The Court further explained that courts must look to the form, content, and context of a statement to determine whether the speech addresses matters of public concern or personal interest.[98] Taking these criteria into account, the Court concluded that all but one of the questions on Myers' questionnaire related to internal office matters.[99] The Court noted that speech of a personal concern or a mere grievance did not implicate the First Amendment.[100]

The Court applied the Pickering balancing test to the portion of the questionnaire it found related to a matter of public concern.[101] The Court weighed Myers' interest in her speech against the state's interest in preventing potentially disruptive speech.[102] The Court concluded that the state's interest outweighed Myers' interest in her speech because her speech threatened to interfere with the efficient operation of the workplace.[103] The Court stated that "[t]he limited First Amendment interest involved here does not require that Connick [Myers' supervisor] tolerate action which he reasonably believed would disrupt the office, undermine his authority, and destroy close working relationships."[104]

Connick restricts the Pickering balancing test in two important ways. First, the Court stated that, as a threshold matter, the speech in question must be on a matter of public concern.[105] If the speech is not on a matter of public concern, a court is not required to balance the competing interests.[106] Second, the Court must balance the interest a public employee has in his speech against the employer's interest in preventing actual or potential disruption of the workplace.[107] The Court has not directly addressed the issue of potential disruption in the context of public school teachers. However, "[a]fter Connick, it seemed unlikely that a public employee could prevail on a First Amendment speech claim."[108]

4. A Brief Respite from the Potential for Disruption

In Rankin v. McPherson,[109] the Court seemed to hedge its position in Connick that potential disruption was sufficient to outweigh a public employee's free speech interest. Rankin arose after a data entry clerk, McPherson, heard about an attempt on the President's life and remarked, "[I]f they go for him again, I hope they get him."[110] The remark was overheard and reported to McPherson's supervisor, who subsequently fired her.[111]

After finding that McPherson's speech addressed a matter of public concern, the Court found no evidence that her remarks actually interfered with or disrupted the workplace.[112] The Court held that the employer's interest in firing McPherson did not exceed McPherson's First Amendment rights.[113] In contrast to Connick, Rankin appears to require a showing of actual disruption to agency operations rather than abstract showings of threatened disruption to discipline, authority, or working relationships.[114]

IV. APPLYING THE PUBLIC EMPLOYEE DOCTRINE TO THE ACADEMIC CONTEXT

From Pickering and its progeny, the Supreme Court synthesized a clear test for lower courts to apply to public employee free speech cases. First, a court must determine if an employee's speech relates to a matter of public concern.[115] If it does, a court must then balance the interests of the employee, as a citizen speaking on matters of public concern, with the interest of the government, as an employer efficiently performing public services through its employees.[116] Finally, a court must determine whether the protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor underlying the adverse employment action.[117] If the protected speech was a motivating or substantial factor, the government employer is given the opportunity to show that, absent the protected conduct, the employer would have reached the same decision.[118]

A professor is not a typical public employee, however, and the synthesized public employee doctrine is complicated as applied to professors at institutions of higher learning. Thus, lower courts have experienced difficulty determining how the test should apply and have differed with respect to the role academic freedom should play in balancing competing interests.

A. Out-of-Class Speech

Courts apply the Pickering balancing test when determining the free speech rights of professors outside of the classroom.[119] In Pickering, the Court stated that courts must "arrive at a balance between the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees."[120] Courts from various jurisdictions have generally found that Pickering and its progeny provide the appropriate test for determining whether a professor's speech outside of the classroom is protected.[121] What is not entirely clear from such cases is how to apply the test and what weight to give to the role of a professor in the balancing of interests.

Some jurisdictions recognize the special role of professors and the virtues of academic freedom by altering the balancing test from the beginning to require the government to show substantial disruption before it may suppress speech in academic contexts.[122] In Burnham v. Ianni,[123] university officials removed several photographic portraits of professors from a history department display case after receiving a complaint from a professor that the display was "insensitive" and "inappropriate" and constituted sexual harassment.[124]

The Eighth Circuit found the university's reliance on Pickering misplaced because there was "no factual showing that the suppressed conduct 'substantially' interfered with the efficiency of the workplace or [the university's] educational mission."[125] The court stated that "[t]he government employer must make a substantial showing that the speech is, in fact, disruptive before the speech may be punished."[126] The Burnham court noted that its holding recognized a professor's academic freedom.[127] The Burnham decision substantially protects academic freedom by requiring an initial showing of disruption before the balancing test ever comes into play.[128]

Other jurisdictions have also required the government to show substantial disruption before it may suppress speech in academic contexts. The Third Circuit has held that in an academic setting, the government cannot impose restrictions on speech unless the speech would "materially and substantially interfere with the requirement of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school."[129] Likewise, the Ninth Circuit has concluded that in academic environments, the government may only regulate protected speech when it "involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others."[130]

However, not all jurisdictions agree that academic freedom plays a special role in the Pickering balancing test. In Westbrook v. Teton County School District,[131] a special education teacher was disciplined pursuant to a staff conduct policy limiting and restricting criticism against the school district.[132] The United States District Court for the District of Wyoming held that the policy was vague and overbroad.[133] However, the court also found that the First Amendment did not afford heightened protection to academic speech.[134] Thus, the court stated:

Although educators may choose to restrict speech in the schools without violating the letter of the First Amendment, they violate the spirit of the First Amendment when they do so. . . . [T]his . . . does not lead to a holding that Westbrook's speech is protected because she may have been speaking about school matters in an academic setting.[135]
Such factors, the court explained, are adequately considered in the traditional Pickering balancing test.[136]

Likewise, in Rubin v. Ikenberry,[137] the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois found that "[a]cademic freedom is not an independent First Amendment right."[138] While acknowledging that a teacher's academic freedom receives some protection, the court stressed that academic freedom also applies to university administrators.[139] Emphasizing that these two freedoms can conflict, the court stated, "[a]cademic freedom does not license uncontrolled expression . . . ."[140] Accordingly, the court did not accord the professor's academic freedom concerns any greater weight.[141]

It is not clear from an analysis of these cases whether academic freedom alters the Pickering balancing test. The Court has never articulated whether a professor's interest in academic freedom should be accorded greater weight than an average public employee's interest in speech in the balancing process.

B. Classroom Speech

Lower courts have not developed a consistent test to be applied to a professor's speech in the classroom because the Supreme Court has not addressed the level of protection that such speech demands.[142] As a result, courts have been reluctant to develop a definite standard applicable to academic speech in the classroom.[143] When courts have fashioned a test, however, the approaches have been varied, and none of the standards have adequately factored academic freedom and the special role of a professor.

Most courts sought guidance from Supreme Court cases that discussed the First Amendment rights of students in the classroom.[144] For example, in Miles v. Denver Public Schools,[145] the Tenth Circuit extended the Supreme Court's holding in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier[146] concerning the students' free speech rights in the classroom to the classroom speech of a ninth grade teacher.[147] Thus, the Miles court stated that school officials may restrict a teacher's in-class speech if there is a legitimate pedagogical interest in abridging the speech and the restriction is reasonably related to that interest.[148]

At first glance, it may seem odd that courts would apply cases dealing with student speech to teacher speech. However, absent guidance from the Supreme Court, many lower federal courts found that such cases were the only cases upon which they could rely. Thus, many other lower courts have analogized teacher classroom speech cases to Hazelwood and adopted the same test as did the Miles court.[149]

The Eleventh Circuit appears to have developed an independent test for a professor's classroom speech. In Bishop v. Aronov,[150] the court developed its own standard based upon its reading of Hazelwood. The court first considered the context of this speech, noting that a professor's speech inherently possesses a coercive effect upon students, which the university may wish to avoid.[151] The court then considered the university's position as an employer that reasonably controls the curriculum and the content communicated in class.[152] Finally, the court weighed the professor's interest in academic freedom.[153]

After applying this balancing test, the court concluded that the university's speech restrictions on Dr. Bishop were reasonable in light of the university's interest in its professors' classroom conduct.[154] This standard is even more restrictive of free speech rights than the one developed by Hazelwood.[155] Under the Bishop test, the university does not have to show a pedagogical interest. As long as a regulation is reasonable, the court will defer to the judgment of school officials.[156] The implications of the decision may be limited, however, because Bishop was complicated by Establishment Clause issues.[157]

While not developing an independent test for classroom speech as did Bishop, one federal court applied the Pickering balancing test to a professor's classroom speech. In Scallet v. Rosenblum,[158] the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia stated, "In the absence of clear guidance, this court will apply the Pickering balancing test to determine the level of first amendment protection afforded Scallet's in-class speech."[159] It appears that the court opted to use Pickering in an attempt to give more protection to professors' classroom speech. The court noted that the cases adopting Hazelwood have addressed the in-class speech of secondary school teachers and not the classroom speech of professors at the university or graduate level.[160] The court also recognized that secondary schools might have more of an interest in restricting classroom speech than would a university because secondary schools play a paternalistic role by protecting students from exposure to material that may be inappropriate for their respective ages.[161]

The Scallet court expressed its reservations about applying Pickering to the classroom speech of university professors because the "test does not explicitly account for the robust tradition of academic freedom . . . ."[162] However, the court concluded that such concerns could be accounted for by identifying the teacher's interest in the speech within the test's parameters.[163]

V. A DOCTRINE IN DISARRAY: WATERS V. CHURCHILL

Even though the public employee doctrine is complicated when applied in the academic context, the synthesis of Pickering and its progeny established a workable doctrine for lower courts. In Waters v. Churchill,[164] however, the Court further restricted its public employee free speech jurisprudence. While not overruling the Pickering line of cases, the Court realigned the balancing analysis considerably to favor the government employer, thus rendering public employee free speech almost nonexistent.

In Waters, Churchill was fired from her nursing job for statements she made to a co-worker that were overheard by third parties, the contents of which were later disputed.[165] Churchill's employer contended that the comments Churchill made were disruptive.[166] However, according to Churchill, the conversation was limited to nondisruptive statements about a hospital policy with which she did not agree.[167] Churchill filed suit for the violation of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.[168]

The United States District Court for Central Illinois granted summary judgment to the hospital because Churchill's speech was not on a matter of public concern, and the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that her speech was on a matter of public concern and was protected under Connick.[169] The Seventh Circuit also stated that Churchill's employer should have acted on what Churchill actually said rather on what the hospital administration thought she said.[170]

In previous public employee cases, the Supreme Court was not faced with a dispute over the substance of the speech. Therefore, Waters presented the Court with a problem that earlier public employee free speech cases had not resolved: What happens when the government employer is uncertain as to what an employee actually said?

Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion began by stating that the Connick standard clearly applied.[171] The question, as the Court framed it, was how to determine the factual basis for applying the test.[172] The plurality focused on whether a public employee who had been disciplined for her speech was entitled to a trial court determination of what was actually said, or whether she may be disciplined for what the employer thought she said.[173] The Court concluded that Churchill may be disciplined for what her employer thought she said.[174]

In so holding, the Court stated, "The government's interest in achieving its goals as effectively and efficiently as possible is elevated from a relatively subordinate interest when it acts as sovereign to a significant one when it acts as an employer."[175] The Court stressed that the Seventh Circuit's holding did not give the government's interest in efficient employment decision making enough weight.[176] The Court explained that in applying the test to what the employer thought was said, a court must consider the reasonableness of the employer's conclusions.[177] An employer must act in good faith, but good faith alone may not be sufficient.[178] The Court stated that managers should exercise reasonable care in determining what speech is protected, similar to the care a manager would employ when making hiring decisions.[179] However, the Court did not set out what would or would not be reasonable, or what procedural safeguards employers must follow.[180] Therefore, the Court concluded that if Churchill's employer really fired her based on a reasonable belief that her conversation was unprotected, then the employer would prevail.[181] Nevertheless, the Court stated that regardless of whether Churchill's version of the speech was on a matter of public concern, which the Court said it did not have to decide, "the potential disruptiveness of the speech as reported was enough to outweigh whatever First Amendment value it might have had."[182]

An interesting aspect of Waters is its narrow holding. Even though the Court concluded that the hospital was justified in firing Waters for her comments, the Court remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit to determine whether Churchill had actually been fired because of the statements at issue or because of something else.[183] Thus, the Court did not even have to reach several of the issues it addressed. Obviously, the Court intended to send a strong message regarding public employee free speech cases: it will give great deference to an employer's determination of whether speech is protected and to the employer's prediction of harm.

Justice Souter concurred in the opinion but only to emphasize that, while the reasonableness test set out by the plurality is the appropriate test for lower courts to apply, an employer must also believe the results of its investigation.[184] Justice Scalia, also concurring, agreed that Churchill's speech was not protected but complained that the decision was not necessary to the disposition of the case.[185] Justice Scalia remarked, "We will spend decades trying to improvise the limits of this new First Amendment procedure that is unmentioned in text and unformed by tradition."[186]

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Blackmun as the only dissenters, believed the Court was not adequately protecting the free speech rights of public employees. Justice Stevens wrote, "Every American has the right to express an opinion on issues of public significance."[187] In reasoning reminiscent of earlier public employee free speech cases, Justice Stevens stressed that only unduly disruptive speech would be possible grounds for discipline or termination.[188] Thus, according to Justice Stevens, actual disruption would be required before a public employer could infringe upon the free speech rights of its employees.[189]

In one fell swoop the Supreme Court turned the public employee free speech doctrine on its head. Instead of courts determining whether speech is protected, the employer now makes the decision. If an employer reasonably determines that an employee's speech is not protected, then the First Amendment is not even implicated and the employer prevails. The Court completely retreated from the position that, for an employer to overcome the First Amendment rights of its employees, it would have to show actual disruption. Thus, Waters firmly established the notion that potential disruption alone is enough to tip the balancing scales in favor of the employer. Overall, "Waters indicates the Court's willingness to replace a genuine balancing analysis of public-employees [F]irst [A]mendment rights and government-employer efficiency interests with an approach that defers to employer decisionmaking regarding the workplace."[190]

VI. IMPLICATIONS OF WATERS ON HIGHER EDUCATION

Waters severely limited the public employee free speech doctrine by replacing a genuine balancing approach with a standard that allows an employer itself to determine if speech is protected. As Justice Scalia noted, the plurality's failure to articulate a consistent standard to guide lower courts has undoubtedly created more questions than answers.[191] The confusion surrounding Waters is apparent in the lower court opinions that have tried to decipher its meaning,[192] and the full ramifications of the decision on academic speech remain unclear.

One of the key questions surrounding Waters in the academic context is when does it apply? Does it apply only in situations where the content of the actual speech is in dispute? Other questions that arise are whether a stronger showing of disruption should be required before speech is restricted and whether taking academic freedom into account, Waters should even apply to professors.

In Jeffries v. Harlston (Jeffries I),[193] the Second Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the issue of when Waters is applicable.[194] Leonard Jeffries, a tenured professor and chair of the Black Studies Department at the City University of New York, was disciplined for a controversial speech he delivered off campus.[195] Jeffries' speech criticized the racial biases he perceived in public school curricula, and during the speech he made several comments critical of Jews.[196] Without investigating whether the speech would have an adverse impact on the university, the university reduced his term as department chair.[197]

The Second Circuit held that the university officials violated Jeffries' First Amendment rights.[198] The court based its holding on the premise that a government employer cannot take action against an employee for speaking on a matter of public concern unless it shows that the speech actually "impaired the efficiency of government operations."[199] The Supreme Court decided Waters one month after Jeffries I and subsequently granted certiorari in Jeffries I.[200] Without comment, the Court vacated the decision and remanded it to the Second Circuit for reconsideration in light of Waters.[201]

On remand, the Second Circuit emphasized that its initial decision was based on its belief that the First Amendment protected a public employee who speaks on matters of public concern from discipline from his employer unless the speech was actually disruptive.[202] Distinguishing Waters, the court noted that Waters held that a public employee might be fired for disruptive speech based on the reasonable belief of what the employee said.[203] While the content of Professor Jeffries' speech was not in dispute, the Second Circuit concluded that it only had to apply the portion of Waters addressing the disruptiveness of that speech.[204] Thus, in Jeffries v. Harleston (Jeffries II),[205] the Second Circuit viewed Waters as applying to all public employee free speech cases, not just those in which the substance of the speech is in dispute.[206] At least one federal court, however, has limited Waters to only those cases in which the substance of the employee's speech is in dispute.[207]

Jeffries II also addressed whether a stronger showing of disruption should be required before speech is restricted. The court stated that it interpreted the Supreme Court's holding in Waters as necessitating that the closer a public employee's speech relates to a matter of public concern, the stronger must be the government employer's showing of likely disruption.[208] Nonetheless, the court found that "even when the speech is squarely on public issues—and thus earns the greatest constitutional protection—Waters indicates that the government's burden is to make a substantial showing of likely interference and not an actual disruption."[209]

The Jeffries II court construed Waters as allowing an employer to discipline an employee for speaking on a matter of public interest when the following is satisfied: the employer's prediction of disruption is reasonable; the potential disruptiveness is enough to outweigh the value of the employee's speech; and the employer took action against the employee based on this disruption and not in retaliation for the speech.[210] The court stated that by emphasizing that actual disruption is not required, Waters negated the foundation of its earlier opinion.[211]

In light of the Supreme Court's decision in Waters, the Jeffries II court reversed its earlier opinion.[212] The court found that a majority of the defendants voted to reduce Jeffries' term as chair because it reasonably believed that his speech would harm the university.[213] Based upon Waters, the court found that "as a matter of law, this potential disruptiveness was enough to outweigh whatever First Amendment value the . . . speech might have had."[214]

Thus, courts are interpreting Waters to stand for the proposition that actual disruption is not required to overcome a public employee's free speech rights.[215] Before Waters, it was not unusual for courts to require actual disruption.[216] Indeed, one could argue that if any situation required actual disruption, it would be restrictions on the free speech rights of professors—where the Court has acknowledged academic freedom as a "special concern" of the First Amendment.[217] Despite the Supreme Court's unequivocal language in Waters, however, at least one court has required that an employer show actual disruption before it can overcome the free speech rights of professors. In Burnham v. Ianni,[218] the Eighth Circuit held that a university must make a substantial showing that speech is disruptive before the university can restrict a professor's free speech.[219]

Finally, taking academic freedom into account, the Jeffries II court addressed whether Waters applied to professors and acknowledged that there was a question as to whether Waters was even applicable in the context of higher education.[220] The court asked whether Jeffries, as a professor in a public university, "deserves greater protection from state interference with his speech than did the nurse in Waters who complained about the obstetrics division of the hospital."[221] Recognizing the importance of academic freedom in colleges and universities, the court stated that academic freedom was an important First Amendment concern.[222] Nonetheless, the court found that Jeffries' academic freedom had not been violated because the function of the department chair position was ministerial.[223] "[T]he defendants have not sought to silence him, or otherwise limit his access to the 'marketplace of ideas' in the classroom."[224]

The Jeffries II opinion overlooks the chilling effect that the university's actions could have on professors' speech. "Academic freedom . . . extends well beyond the classroom. It is obvious that the demotion was meant to, and would 'chill' both Jeffries' academic free speech and that of others who otherwise might wish to speak out on matters of academic policy or public affairs."[225] Accordingly, Jeffries II threatens to stifle professors' speech for fear of reprisal on a front not directly related to their academic duties.

The Jeffries II decision leaves open the question of whether Waters is applicable when academic freedom rights are implicated. The court did not address whether Waters would be applicable if a university tried to silence a professor's classroom speech, thereby infringing on his academic freedom rights. Whether a court will utilize this opportunity to protect academic freedom remains to be seen. Thus, "[a]fter Waters and Jeffries II, academics might still be free to speak out on matters of public concern; they will do so, however, only at their own risk."[226]

VII. CHARTING A COURSE TO PROTECT ACADEMIC FREEDOM

The public employee free speech cases potentially impact every aspect of professorial speech. Academic freedom concerns professional freedom, enjoyed in a limited, professional capacity, and not necessarily shared with the public at large.[227] The current public employee free speech doctrine is not compatible with academic freedom and poses a serious threat to professors with minority views and unconventional pedagogical teachings. Prevailing wisdom could never be overturned if new ideas are not cultivated—this is the job of a professor. Scholars and academics continuously examine and modify the pre-existing framework of knowledge.[228]

It follows that academic freedom is not merely the right to teach the truth. By necessity, it encompasses the freedom to teach what is false.[229]

If we had some way of being certain that some propositions were absolute truths, perhaps we would be justified in teaching them without bothering to inquire further about them. But we have no such certainty. Those "truths" that were once regarded as synthetic a priori truths . . . have been questioned and even denied.[230]
Thus, it is necessary to defend academic freedom and to restrain those who would interfere with this right.[231]

A. The Necessity of Preserving Academic Freedom

Academic freedom insures that we do not blindly echo the beliefs of our predecessors.[232] "Discoveries are made, at least in part, because inquiring minds have an opportunity to challenge one another, to debate their methods and their conclusions, and to question their findings."[233] Therefore, academic freedom, both in and out of the classroom, not only benefits the professor, but also benefits society.[234]

If the price for voicing controversial ideas is sanction or discharge, a university may be peaceful, but it will also be sterile.[235] The result of such an atmosphere would be self-censorship.[236] When university officials are capable of disciplining a professor for his or her speech, the chilling effect is unmistakable.[237] When the university takes on the role of censor, "[s]ilence is more and more often deemed 'golden.'"[238] In these circumstances, professors will not speak out or voice their opinion on unaccepted views.[239] Supreme Court precedent acknowledging academic freedom "allow[s] for the presence and tolerance of dissent, even when it goes against the deeply held convictions of most members of the university community."[240]

The public employee free speech doctrine does not allow for such dissent. When a professor holds a controversial view, before he will speak out on the topic, he will have to ask himself: Am I speaking as an employee? Is my speech on a matter of public concern? Does my speech have the potential to disrupt university operations? The answer to any of these questions could render a professor's speech completely unprotected. With such considerations in mind, a professor is more likely "to steer clear of the forbidden zone," and will not speak out on such issues.[241]

To avoid the chilling effect inherent in the public employee free speech doctrine and the complete usurpation of academic freedom, university officials should not be allowed to place limitations upon the opinions a faculty member is allowed to express. Professors at institutions of higher learning should be free to express their views no matter how outrageous, reprehensible, or condemnable they might be. "If academic freedom means anything, it must mean that there can be no limits to the ideas a faculty member may express, and virtually none to the manner in which he expresses them . . . . Matters of taste are, after all, ultimately subjective."[242]

It does not require a stretch of the imagination to foresee a situation where university officials are given the power to determine the manner in which a professor may express herself, which in turn leads to the assumption of the right to determine the content of the professor's speech.[243]

The proper way to deal with . . . faculty members who propound heretical ideas, then, is to tolerate them, but not to ignore them. They must be answered and exposed. But they should not be drummed off the academic platform for expressing their ideas, however false or despicable those ideas might be. To do so would be inconsistent with the open and robust search for truth that is the hallmark of science and the university.[244]
B. A New Test for Academic Freedom

If academic freedom is to remain a special concern of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court recognized in Keyishian v. Board of Regents,[245] then courts should not apply Connick and Waters when dealing with professors' speech at colleges and universities. These cases were not decided in an academic context, but in the paternalistic context of government employment and grade school educators. Connick and Waters do not adequately take into account academic freedom considerations. Punishing a professor for the potential disruptiveness or abstract disruptions of his speech erodes the core of academic freedom.[246] Academic freedom is intended to protect a professor who teaches in a controversial manner from reprisal for his teaching methods. Connick and Waters do not offer this protection.

Pickering also fails to adequately protect a professor's interest in academic freedom. The Scallet decision illustrates the problems associated with applying a balancing standard to academics.[247] The Scallet court had good intentions when it applied Pickering to professors' classroom speech. Indeed, the court believed that the Pickering standard would be more protective than any other possible standard.[248] However, the court overlooked some crucial factors.

The court failed to recognize that Pickering was meant to protect an employee speaking as a citizen upon matters of public concern.[249] When a professor is in his classroom, he is not speaking as a citizen; rather, he is speaking in his roles as a professor, educator, and employee. Pickering could lead many courts to conclude that a professor's classroom speech is not protected at all because the professor is speaking in the course of his employment and merely doing his job. Thus, the noble intent behind the Scallet court's decision to apply Pickering to classroom speech could be circumvented.

Additionally, the current public employee doctrine does not adequately account for a professor's interest in academic freedom.[250] The Eighth Circuit, however, has taken a first step in the right direction to protect academic freedom. In Burnham, the court found that Pickering was not applicable unless the employer made an initial factual showing that the speech "'substantially' interfered with the efficiency of the workplace."[251] The court recognized that its decision specifically protected a professor's academic freedom.[252] The Burnham decision, however, focused predominantly on the employer's burden of showing substantial interference rather than emphasizing the interests of academic freedom in the actual balancing process. A test that adequately preserves academic freedom would utilize the threshold required in Burnham and apply the Supreme Court's decision in Boos v. Barry[253] to professorial speech. The standard adopted in Boos would allow a university to restrict a professor's speech based upon its content only if the secondary effects of the speech were the targets of the regulation.[254] However, a restriction on speech cannot focus on the direct impact the speech has on the listener because the listener's reaction is not a secondary effect.[255] Regulations on speech are only permissible when the justification for the restriction is not related to the content of the speech.[256]

Furthermore, what constitutes a secondary effect should be determined by the nature of the workplace. An employee cannot be so offended by speech that he or she is effectively excluded from the workplace. A secondary effect must be gauged by the expectations of the employee given the nature of the job and what an employee legitimately expects to encounter while at work.[257] Those in academia should legitimately expect to be confronted with controversial and unpopular views from their colleagues. Academic freedom embraces the notion that dissent will be tolerated even when it offends the convictions of most of the university community.[258]

Applying the Boos standard rather than the current public employee doctrine in academic contexts is necessary because of the special considerations inherent in academic freedom. Thus, requiring a university to show substantial disruption before it restricts speech and only allowing the restriction if it was aimed at the secondary effects of the speech allows a professor the freedom to express controversial views and safeguards academic freedom. Such a test does justice to a professor's interest in academic freedom while still allowing a university to control its operations.

VIII. CONCLUSION

As Justice Louis L. Brandeis once noted, "Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant."[259] This is the strength of academic freedom: truth will eventually emerge if people have the freedom to express their views, examine and criticize these views, and ultimately expose false views. However, if such expression is stifled, majoritarian views will predominate, critical inquiry will cease, and our society will stagnate. The extremely restrictive public employee speech doctrine promulgated by the Supreme Court poses a serious threat to academic freedom. The protection of academic freedom is not only a paramount concern for professors, but for society as a whole. The public employee doctrine needs to be reexamined so that it encompasses protection for academic freedom—a virtue the Supreme Court itself once described as of "transcendent value to all of us."[260]