Academic Freedom & COVID-Related Topics


How are universities regulating how faculty may discuss COVID-related topics such as mask wearing and vaccinations with students?

Via Keith Whittington (Princeton), we learn of the University of Iowa’s policy. According to it, faculty are not allowed to ask students to wear masks in their classroom or office, nor allowed to ask whether students have been vaccinated. Nor are they allowed to discuss the value of getting vaccinated or wearing masks:

Q: May I make statements in the classroom regarding mask usage or vaccinations?
A: You may only make statements regarding mask usage or vaccinations in the context of course material discussions of health-related issues. Outside that context, if you are asked, you may share your personal choice regarding the decision to wear a mask or be vaccinated without making a statement regarding the value of the choice or any value judgments about decisions not to be vaccinated. Remember that there is a power differential between you and your students, and they may perceive you asking them to wear a mask or if they have been vaccinated as a requirement that they do so.

Whittington says, “That’s an academic freedom problem & potentially a First Amendment problem.”

Discussion welcome.

Does your university have a COVID-related speech policy, and if so what does it say?

UPDATE (8/13/21): Inside Higher Ed has an article on this, and reports that “the university officially removed the guidance from its website Thursday, posting a ‘revisions in progress’ notice.”

click to learn more

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Jon Light
1 month ago

At my university, the pressures go the other way; the faculty (as through the AAUP) is supposed to be united in our moral certainty that everyone should be vaccinated. (Our university does not have a vaccination requirement, to the AAUP’s chagrin.) As examples of things that we’re discouraged from talking about: (1) the differences between FDA emergency and non-emergency protocols; (2) the effectiveness of antibodies as compared to vaccine; (3) whether there are appropriate religious/moral/philosophical objections to vaccination; (4) whether there’s a difference between things like smallpox vaccines that we can legitimately require versus other vaccinations that we might not.

As soon as you ask any of these questions, you’re labeled a “vaccine denier”, offering “counterproductive” conversations. Yes, these are all direct quotes.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

I very strongly suspect that the pressures are overwhelmingly going the way you suggest rather than the way the OP uses as an example. I don’t think anyone can claim with a straight face that what’s being threatened these days is the freedom to claim one’s support for masks or vaccines. Even at Iowa, I would not be surprised if that were not accurate. In fact, the link indicates that the FAQ is already being revised. At any rate, the quote Q&A doesn’t suggest any violation of academic freedom—simply a strong recommendation not to make normative judgments about students’ choice (academic freedom does not protect professors’ opining on their students personal lives, even if they think their choices have public relevance). It seems that professors are still perfectly free to opine on the objective merits of vaccines and what they take to be evidence for the effectiveness of masks in the context of a course-related discussion.

With all that said, I’d like to have a relationship built on mutual trust with my students that allows me to give them personal recommendations. I’ve done so with some of my advisees and you should talk to them outside of class if you can, with kindness and understanding.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

By the way, Jon’s examples are outrageous. Trust in the public health establishment has been eroded enough already. That you can’t even discuss these questions without being called names or worse isn’t gonna help with vaccine uptake, IMHO.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

Justin asked “How are universities regulating how faculty may discuss COVID-related topics such as mask wearing and vaccinations with students?”

It sounds like the examples you’re giving may be real examples of pressures that faculty fact, but it sounds like it’s not university regulation in this case (though definitely correct me if I’m wrong!)

It’s probably worth discussing all the chilling effects of all the pressures people are feeling, but on first read of your comment, someone might get a false impression of what the university is requiring.Report

dmf
dmf
1 month ago

thanks for bringing some much needed attention to this, scary (and dangerous) enough on its own given the public health treats involved but darker yet under the cloud of:
https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2021/06/08/iowa-bans-divisive-concepts-from-diversity-trainings-school-curriculum/Report

Jon Light
Reply to  dmf
1 month ago

In fairness, some of those “divisive” concepts travel under the ambit of CRT and involve having white 8-year olds label themselves as oppressors, involve school teachers telling students not to talk to their parents about the classes, and so on; see the Loudon County fallout as one example.

Also, TX and ID also banned this stuff, it’s not just IA. In fact, the Senate also passed legislation banning it yesterday, when Sen. Manchin (D-WV) gave bipartisan support to Sen. Cotton’s (R-AR) anti-CRT proposal. If Pres. Biden vetoes it, you can be sure a bunch of school districts in blue states are going to start getting sued under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

The senate didn’t pass legislation banning it. They passed an amendment to the budget resolution that ‘banned’ it. There are lots of these amendments because of how reconciliation works, but (aiui) none of them are binding. (Minority-party senators don’t get to propose actually-binding legislation unless the majority party supports it too: that’s the whole point of majority control.)Report

Jon Light
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Yeah, for sure that’s correct; thank you for the clarification, hadn’t meant to be sloppy on it.Report