What are the limits of academic freedom? ‘Some conflict is acceptable’
Should academics speak out about Gaza or the climate crisis, or not? And occupying a highway in your academic gown, is that a good idea? Mare explores the limits of academic freedom. ‘Do you want to save the world? That’s great, but then you should become an activist and quit science.’
Vincent Bongers, Marciëlle van der Kraan en Sebastiaan van Loosbroek
Thursday 22 February 2024

Christian Henderson’s Twitter feed includes pictures of Palestinian children with severe burns from Israeli bombings in Gaza. In his tweets, he calls Israel ‘an apartheid state’ engaged in ‘a genocide against Palestinians’. Henderson is an assistant professor of international relations and Middle East studies at Leiden University.
Is it acceptable for a researcher to take such a stance? Should lecturers be allowed to participate in a pro-Palestine demonstration for which the Executive Board has not given permission? Can professors wear their academic gowns when they want to occupy the A12 to draw attention to the climate crisis? Or is lecturers’ freedom to express their opinions and protest under pressure?
When it comes to these kinds of issues, the term ‘academic freedom’ often comes up. But there is something rather unusual about this type of freedom, because it is unclear what it actually entails. The term is so vague, in fact, that rector Hester Bijl established the ‘Academic freedom Core Team’ in 2022 to determine what exactly it means. The team organises talks with students and staff in order to get a clear picture of the limits of academic freedom and whether this freedom is under pressure. On Wednesday 14 February, the core team organized a dialogue for the academic community for the second time.
The university seems to be struggling with this sensitive issue to such an extent that neither the rector nor the core team wants to speak to Mare before the team has published a report. ‘We shouldn't rush ahead on this matter just yet, especially with the community still having a say,’ says university spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke on Bijl’s behalf. Professor of history Herman Paul of the core team e-mails that the members ‘will not thwart the process with their own answers, as it would only impede the dialogue’.


Fortunately, other Leiden academics do feel free enough to explain what they think academic freedom means. The definition of this term is not laid down by law, by the way. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) gives the following definition in its report ‘Academic freedom in the Netherlands’: ‘The principle that staff of academic institutions are free to perform their scientific research, disclose their findings and teach.’
The definitions also differ among Leiden researchers. ‘You can't just say whatever you want,’ says Christian Henderson. ‘There are rules: no ad hominem attacks, no calls for violence. Bullying or using dehumanising language is not allowed.’
In substantive terms, there are certain topics that do not belong in the academic debate, says Henderson. ‘Claiming that the earth is flat, for example. These matters are proven and no longer a subject of scientific discussion.’ According to him, this is an important difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech. ‘You do, of course, have the freedom of speech to say that the earth is flat.’

‘If we all agree on everything, we can’t advance science’

According to former rector Carel Stolker, who retired in 2021, academic freedom is ‘the freedom an academic has in their research and teaching in relation to the government, the rector, colleagues and students. Within your research programme, you should be able to research and teach anything, as long as it complies with the rules of academic integrity and the university’s code of conduct.’
Stolker is one of the assessors of the KNAW report and following complaints by former social sciences lecturer Laurens Buijs, he conducted research into the state of academic freedom at the University of Amsterdam.
Recent research by Technopolis, a science consultancy, shows that 13 to 29 percent of researchers and students adopt a cautious attitude towards issues such as migration, climate and gender. ‘Those are very shocking figures,’ Stolker responds.


According to Roos van Oosten, assistant professor at Archaeology and a participant in the dialogue held on 14 February, academic freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility.
‘Those two things cannot be separated. With every choice you make as an academic, you have to ask yourself: how independent and socially responsible is this? Maybe your responsibility as an academic is even greater than that of an “ordinary person”.’
Thomas Wells, philosophy lecturer, strongly disagrees. ‘I don’t think researchers hold a special place that comes with a specific freedom. They’re no different from, say, accountants, in that respect.’
According to Arie-Jan Kwak, lecturer at the Law School, academic freedom can go very far, but it does have its limits. ‘It is not a carte blanche to do whatever you want; you’re not above criminal law.’ Kwak says the most important requirement is for academics to substantiate their claims in public debate. ‘If you can do that, it may even be your duty as an academic to present your conclusions.’
Henderson argues that this is precisely why his Twitter posts on Gaza fall within the scope of academic freedom. ‘It’s not something I just wrote: there is evidence for it. Many human rights organisations call Israel an apartheid state. There is also a court case underway in The Hague on whether genocide is taking place in Gaza.’


Stolker believes there is less room for opinions on sensitive issues during lectures than outside of them. ‘In the lecture hall, the student is central, not the lecturer. You're allowed to provoke students by putting forward a provocative statement. But in principle, a lecturer’s personal opinion on Israel or Hamas, for example, has no place there.’
Henderson agrees in part, but he thinks it is okay to express his opinion on Gaza in the lecture hall. ‘Though I am less explicit there than on Twitter. That is my private account which doesn’t state that I work at Leiden University. I don’t push my opinions in my lectures. For example, I don't say that Israel is an apartheid state, even though I do believe that.’
Lecturers actually have more freedom in the lecture hall than online, Kwak argues. He would prefer it if colleagues were more cautious about airing their opinions on social media. ‘There is a serious danger that the things you say will be misunderstood or put into all kinds of other contexts. In the lecture hall, you have a little more freedom to take stances because you can provide your students with a clear context.’
Stolker believes asking a controversial question in the lecture hall is better than proclaiming one’s own opinion. ‘”Do you think Putin is doing the right thing?” is acceptable, but “Putin is a good guy, we could use more men like him” is not something you can say in the classroom.’


But there is room for challenging statements in the lecture hall. ‘For example, Laurens Buijs argued that the non-binary gender identity is a hype; this is a statement you should be able to make. A non-binary student can’t stop you by saying: “That makes me feel unsafe.” However, the tone is very important. But that element of discomfort and unorthodoxy, that’s part of the university. If we all agree on everything, we can’t advance science. And keep in mind: soon, those same students will enter society, where opposing views abound.’


And what about demonstrations? In November, action group Students for Palestine staged a protest at the Wijnhaven building. Lecturers also participated in the so-called teach-in, for which no permission was requested from the university.
Andrew Littlejohn, assistant professor of anthropology and development sociology, believes that such a demonstration tests the boundaries of academic freedom. ‘The protest was stifled and that was an attempt to suppress the expression of certain ideas. That goes against academic freedom.’

‘If the house is on fire, you should grab a bucket of water’

However, the activists are not blameless either, he believes. The action group had previously distributed pamphlets in The Hague endorsing Hamas’ attack on Israel. ‘That was extremely painful for Jewish students and staff. I am Jewish myself and I found that material to be deplorable. This is where you reach the limit of academic freedom. A certain degree of discomfort at the university is acceptable, but hostility is not.’
Is it acceptable to demonstrate in the buildings without the university’s permission? ‘You may impose rules on protests in the buildings,’ says Stolker. ‘What if a student is taking their final exam for the BSA that day? But banging on pans outside is okay, although the mayor can also set demands.’
At the same time, Stolker has noticed that the academy is avoiding the debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict. ‘I think the university is tiptoeing around it because of the great sensitivity of the subject. But especially as a university, you should be able to demonstrate how to deal with differences of opinion. Conflict leads to new insights. So it’s part of Leiden’s identity to face these kinds of issues.’


What about climate protest? Should academics be allowed to block a highway? Wells thinks academics should be very cautious. ‘You shouldn’t think: “Something unjust is happening somewhere, I'm going to throw myself into that.” You could, but then you should become an activist and quit science. It’s not okay to miss a lecture because you’ve been arrested, thinking you’re saving the world.’
By contrast, Henderson believes a lecturer can also be an activist. Doing nothing while knowing that unjust things are happening is also a form of activism.’
Littlejohn, who is a climate activist himself but does not join the protests on the A12 – ‘because I’m not Dutch and would rather not risk being arrested’ – is also uncomfortable with not taking action while seeing all the things that are going wrong. ‘There’s a moral responsibility that comes with it. If the house is on fire, you should grab a bucket of water and start extinguishing.’

‘It may even be your duty to go and protest on the A12’

Kwak can understand that researchers from certain academic fields are more activist. ‘If your focus is on climate, I can see why you would go and demonstrate from time to time. But demonstrating on the A12 in your academic gown is a different story altogether. You have to ask yourself to what extent such an action could damage not only you as an academic, but an entire professional group.’


It is befitting for academics to exercise restraint, thinks professor of experimental physics Jan van Ruitenbeek, who also participated in the dialogue on Wednesday. ‘I think you can go to the A12 if you want, but not in your gown. Because it’s a matter of policy choices, which can’t be made from academia. I don’t think you add much as a professor in your gown. Your opinion on this matter does not weigh more than that of any other random person.’
Stolkers believes that the discipline of the protesting academic is important. ‘A climate scientist in gown? Yes, that’s acceptable. But as an Assyriologist, I’d think twice. For anyone who doesn’t do climate research, it’s better to come in their regular clothes. And one more thing: keep in mind that professors are more restricted in their freedom of expression than ordinary citizens. Society perceives them as professors. The simple fact that you are a professor gives you authority. And that calls for restraint when it comes to proclaiming nonsense.’
However, ‘the climate crisis no longer concerns only climate scientists, but rather a whole range of disciplines,’ thinks neuroscientist, assistant professor and climate activist Anne Urai. ‘For example, historians could clarify why there has been too little policy action to effect change all this time. All academics can read graphs and the basics of global warming are quite simple. So this issue should not just be reserved for climate scientists.’
According to Van Oosten, the importance of the protests factors into where the limit of academic freedom lies. ‘The climate crisis is a relevant and urgent problem, but the political response is excruciatingly slow. As an academic, you have the privilege of possessing certain knowledge. As such, it may even be your duty to go and protest on the A12.’