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Miscellaneous Events: Cloudy with a Chance of Thunderstorms: The Current State of Academic Freedom in America

March 17, 2011

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How free are teachers and students to explore controversial topics in American schools and universities?  How free are they to express unpopular ideas? Not free enough, says the author of Knowledge in the Making:  Academic Freedom and Free Speech in America's Schools and Universities (Yale, 2010).

Drawing on examples from real-life disputes involving race, religion, homosexuality, and politics, DelFattore will show how public schools and universities attempt to limit debate and discourage dissent.  She will also discuss federal court decisions that demonstrate the limits of constitutional protection for free speech in public education.

Underlying the specific conflicts DelFattore will present is a struggle between two fundamental American values:  majority rule and individual rights. Are public schools and universities obligated to promote the majority's beliefs?  What happens when experts and the majority clash?  Where should the line be drawn between the right of the school or university to promote certain ideas and the right of faculty and students to dissent?

The answers to these questions are different for elementary and secondary schools, on the one hand, and universities, on the other. But far from drawing a bright line between them, DelFattore will argue that we must consider American public education as a whole to determine how successfully it deals with controversial ideas.  Only when we come to grips with attempts to suppress controversy from kindergarten through graduate school can we see the implications for the development of future generations and for this nation's commitment to providing world-class education.

A Writer in Residence in the Library’s Allen Room, Joan DelFattore is a professor of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware.  She is the award-winning author of three books published by Yale University Press:  What Johnny Shouldn't Read:  Textbook Censorship in America, The Fourth R:  Conflicts Over Religion in America's Public Schools, and Knowledge in the Making:  Academic Freedom and Free Speech in America's Schools and Universities. She has also published dozens of articles on free speech in American public education.