Academic freedom, academic responsibility, Speaking of Research, and Steve Best.

Nov 05 2012 Published by under Academia, Research with animals

The Speaking of Research blog has been following the involvement of Steve Best, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, in providing the philosophical justification for animal rights extremist groups like Negotiation is Over in their "direct action" efforts using threats of violence to discourage animal research.

Recently, they noted that his collaboration with Negotiation Is Over seems to have come to an end, given that he has sought a restraining order against Camille Marino, the most identifiable activist behind Negotiation Is Over.

Best took issue with this coverage, apparently because part of it focused on his own strong claims:

“Let every motherfucker who shoots animals be shot; Let every motherfucker who poisons animals be injected with a barrel of battery acid; Let every motherfucking vivisector be vivisected and thrown away like the shit they are,” he wrote in 2011.

and on what seemed to be evidence that Best assisted Marino in her efforts to raise money to pay college students to give Negotiation Is Over names, pictures, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information for their classmates who were "learning to experiment on animals". What was the relevant evidence? That donations were requested to be sent to a PayPal account linked to an email address that belongs to Steve Best.

So now, Best has emailed Speaking of Research threatening them with legal action:

you are violating my academic free speech rights with these false unproven claims, and I will take the most aggressive legal action against all of you, just as I have against Marino, who is soon to go down on federal charges for further violations of my PPO.

Specifically, Best is challenging the assertion that letting Marino use the PayPal account linked to that email address of his constitutes support of the Negotiation Is Over campaign against biomedical students.

I think that different people can look at the available evidence and draw different conclusions about the extent of Best's support of the Negotiation Is Over campaign -- and certainly that there might be some interesting discussions (perhaps grounded in moral or political philosophy) on degrees of support and corresponding degrees of responsibility. However, I think Best is overreaching in his claim that Speaking of Research is "violating [his] academic free speech rights" in blogging about his public statements and public activities.

Like free speech more generally, academic freedom is not unlimited. I reckon a tenured associate professor's free speech would not extend to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie house. It would surely not extend, either, to ordering a hit on an enemy, whether that enemy was professional or personal.

And, beyond issues of identifying the point at which speech becomes action (whether that action is criminal or not), it is crucial to recognize that academic freedom, like free speech more generally, is not a right to be free from having others criticize what you have said.

Here's what the University of Texas at El Paso Handbook of Operating Procedures says about academic freedom:

Academic freedom is an indispensable element of that larger liberty that includes the right to free expression.  Because a free society and freedom itself rest upon the continuous search for knowledge, and because institutions of higher education are primary agencies for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, a faculty member is entitled to full academic freedom in research, in the publication of results and conclusions, and in the classroom presentation of his or her subject.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Have the posts at Speaking of Research prevented Best from pursuing his research, or from publishing his conclusions or presenting them in the classroom? I have no evidence one way or the other on this, but it would surprise me very much if they have. It's true that the UK Home Office barred Best from entering the UK on account of public statements that were judged to be at odds with a policy prohibiting entry of people who

foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in furtherance of particular beliefs; seek to provoke others to terrorist acts; [or] foment other serious criminal activity or seek to provoke others to serious criminal acts.

So, Best was prevented from presenting his conclusions (in person) in the UK, but not by Speaking of Research. Moreover, academic freedom is not a guarantee that the academic claiming it will be admitted to any nation in the world.

Here's what the University of Texas at El Paso Handbook of Operating Procedures says about academic responsibility:

Academic freedom, like any other freedom, carries with it concomitant responsibilities.  The requirements of scholarly statement and research in a field of specialization shall constitute the guidelines for these responsibilities. 

Academic freedom does not extend to the promulgation and exploitation in the classroom of material that has no relationship to the subject being taught.

Academic responsibility imposes certain professional restraints on academicians in their roles as citizens.  Because faculty are identified as members of a learned profession and as representatives of the University, they should bear in mind that the public may judge both the profession and the University on the basis of public utterances.  Hence, when acting in their roles as citizens, faculty members are expected to be accurate in their statements, to respect the opinions of others, and to make it clear that they do not speak for the University or their profession.

As employees of a State institution of higher education, faculty members should refrain from involving the University of Texas System or The University of Texas at El Paso in partisan politics.

(Bold emphasis added.)

There's a lot we could say about exactly how academic responsibility might play out, but surely a short-list would include:

  1. You have a responsibility not to knowingly present an untruth as the truth (e.g., fabricating or falsifying experimental results, or making claims that you know are not supported by the available evidence).
  2. You have a responsibility, when presenting yourself as a scholar/knowledge-builder/thinker from a particular academic field, to make use of the recognized methods of that field in arriving at or supporting the claims you're putting forward. A scientist making an assertion needs to be ready to point to the scientific evidence that supports it (and to answer the scientific evidence that seems to be in conflict with it). A philosopher needs to be ready to put up the argument that supports his position, and to answer the objections and counterarguments.
  3. You have a responsibility to recognize that some assertions you might make can be used to harm others -- and, possibly, to do all you can to head off that harm when you make those assertions.
  4. Arguably, you have a responsibility not to threaten the academic freedom of others.

Calling for violence towards other academics who do work of which you do not approve, then, seems like a failure of academic responsibility. And, such calls for violence are arguably more of an impediment to academic freedom than is a blog post critiquing a philosopher's rhetoric or the use to which it has been put by activist groups.

Of course, the folks at Speaking of Research are quite clear that they are not interested in infringing on Steve Best's academic freedom:

We are not acting against his academic freedom. If anything we are merely defending the academic freedom of those of his academic colleagues at UTEP and elsewhere that Prof. Best wants “to be vivisected and thrown away like the shit they are.”  Most universities have an ethical code of conduct that make such speech unacceptable academic behavior.  One must wonder if UTEP has one or not.

Prof. Best is free to speak up his mind and support animal rights extremists and their actions, but he must understand that such freedom does not entail freedom from the consequences of such speech or acts. Here and elsewhere, we have simply explained and documented the connection between Negotiation is Over, their campaigns to harass and intimidate students, the PayPal account they used to accept donations, and its link to Prof. Best email account.

Academics -- especially academic philosophers -- come into their professional world expecting that there will be vigorous disagreements about the conclusions they bring to the marketplace of ideas, and about the arguments they use to support those conclusions. When one's work has clear relevance to issues that matter beyond the ivory tower, it is to be expected that these disagreements will spill over into the broader public discourse. That's the price of exercising your academic free speech -- you may have to listen to critiques.

If Steve Best wants to avoid the critiques, his only sure bet is to drop out of the discussion. He can't simultaneously assert his own right to speech while demanding that his critics shut up.

6 responses so far

  • Paul says:

    Interesting commentary Janet, thank for sharing it and the link!

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  • Dorisd says:

    Thanks Janet for a well put together and impartial view of the facts... You nail it straight: if you don't want to be criticized for your speech, don't speak!

  • chall says:

    Great post with well put together pointers and facts about lots of things not covered when you read only Best's side. (or animal rights' NiO)

    I think he made a little too much of his "right to speak academic freedom" when he voiced his agreement with violence [against fellow academics....]. You can surely voice your thoughts and opionions as "free speak as an academic" but if you think people will always love you regardless, nope. Surely he must have realised that the moment he went from "I don't agree with the pracitce of animal research" to "people who vivisect should be vivisected" would be like turning from Kant completely into an early Singer "kill the 10 month old baby".... and that people would use those statements?!

    It's the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to" ... those small pesky differences. And the responsibility it comes with, being an assistant professor enjoying the academic freedom of speech.

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