2009 Archive


An Additional Comment on Campus Protests and Academic Freedom

Christopher Edley, Dean
November 20, 2009

At the request of some students at Berkeley Law, I write to elaborate on my statements concerning academic freedom as regards Professor John Yoo and the widespread concerns about the role he played in the Bush Administration’s efforts to combat terrorism while he was on leave from Berkeley. (For my earlier detailed statement, see http://www.law.berkeley.edu/5961.htm)

I believe that until a competent body makes findings of fact and offers conclusions of law concerning Professor Yoo’s actions related to torture and human rights, vital principles of academic freedom require that all of us affirm and respect his right to teach and the right of our students to take courses from him without interference, including disruption or intimidation. I have specifically asked my staff and the University Police to make reasonable efforts to prevent such disruption or intimidation and, if unsuccessful, to arrest trespassers. 

However much any of us may agree with the political and policy views of protesters, I believe that all members of the law school community share a duty to uphold freedom of thought, however unpopular, and freedom of inquiry, however uncomfortable. As to illegality or professional misconduct, as some have alleged against Professor Yoo, the investigative and disciplinary mechanisms of the University are in my judgment neither designed nor sufficiently knowledgeable to decide the matters at issue. Other institutions should and must serve that function.

But let me state plainly: This fidelity to academic freedom and our notions of excellence does not mean that students, staff and faculty are obligated to stand mute or ignore the controversy. Protests that do not interfere with teaching and learning, and have no purpose or effect of intimidation, are certainly permissible. More importantly, serious and reasoned debate is at the very core of the academic freedom we are bound to safeguard. Learning, like the best kind of politics, involves the clash of ideas. In a great university, that clash should serve to illuminate and inspire, not to censor or intimidate. Berkeley Law has unfailingly been on the right side of this distinction throughout my experience here.  To me, that is a tremendous source of pride.

When a student graduates from our law school, the faculty – indeed the whole community – has failed if he or she has not struggled to reconcile personal passions with broad principles anchored in the law. Whatever might be said for the rest of the academy, as a law school one imperative is clear: Our students must acquire a honed facility not only to advocate their cause, but also to marshal the self-critical discipline and temperament to know the weaknesses in their own advocacy and to discern any peppercorn of truth possessed by their opponent. None of this is possible without vigorous discussion in classrooms and corridors, curriculum and co-curriculum.

I am confident that I speak for all members of the faculty in stressing that when engaging any vexing and critical issue of the day – from torture to tort reform, abortion to habeas corpus, gay marriage to orphan drug patents, climate change to Glass-Steagall re-regulation – both our profession and our academic mission are centrally concerned with vigorous, disciplined, inquiry and debate. We live for the thrill of the rumpus, but not too wild.
 

11/20/2009