NOU 2022: 2

Academic freedom of expression — A good culture of free speech must be built from the bottom up, every single day

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1 Summary

The Commission’s mandate is to describe possible threats to academic freedom of expression, partly in light of international developments. The Commission shall provide a basis for discussing the prerequisites for scholarly contributions to public debates and propose measures to provide a clearer framework for scholars’ academic freedom of expression and the responsibilities incumbent on the institutions to promote this.

The mandate focuses on academic staff at universities and university colleges. However, greater understanding of what academic freedom of expression is, why it is fundamental to the development of society, and how it can be exercised is important for a wider audience: students, other types of employees in the higher education sector, the owners of universities and university colleges, and employees in the institute sector and health trusts. The Commission’s assessments also apply to them, insofar as they are appropriate.

The Commission has been tasked with «investigating issues relating to academic freedom of expression». Chapter 3 presents academic freedom of expression functionally, pertaining to the mandate, as an aspect of both academic freedom and freedom of expression. It describes why this particular freedom is important.

Academic freedom of expression is a precondition for the exercise of academic freedom on the individual level, in all the traditional areas of academic work – research, teaching and dissemination. In light of the mandate, the Commission has found academic freedom of expression’s significance for dissemination to be its main focus point. Academic freedom of expression and research dissemination are closely interlinked – they both function as knowledge-based, truth-seeking communication. Dissemination is important within academia, among peers and between and among the administration, staff and students. Academic free speech is also crucial for the fulfilment of academia’s broad civic mission through dissemination to the broader public – as communication of knowledge from experts to the public, and vice versa.

The Commission regards academic dissemination as broader than the mere dissemination of what the individual scholar has researched or taught. It also includes communicating knowledge about one’s own field of study in a broad sense, other scholars’ findings, insights one has due to one’s academic training, discussion of scientific practices and methods, and of the institutional and structural factors that form the framework for academic work. Moreover, dissemination is not just one-way: it can also be multi-way and communicative. This kind of communicative interaction is crucial not only for the effectiveness of the dissemination activity per se, but also for academia to obtain important information about and correctives from the broader public. This strengthens academia’s understanding of society and therefore also the quality of academia.

Freedom of expression as a legal right protects people’s opportunity freely to express their ideas and opinions on whatever topic they want, however they want, and to receive opinions and information from others. The grounds for this freedom are the seeking of truth, the promotion of democracy and the individual’s freedom to form opinions. Everyone (including academics) enjoys this protection for their freedom of expression. In essence, it protects all expressions, including those that are stupid, shocking, irrelevant, emotional and irrational.

Academic freedom of expression, by contrast, is subject to certain quality requirements. These quality requirements consist of the norms and standards that apply in the academic community. They can also relate to the content of academic expressions, such as use of scientific methods, representativeness and ethics. They can also set guidelines regarding the form in which academic expressions are made, such as their objectiveness, transparency, impartiality and fair representation of opposing arguments.

The quality requirements underline that academic freedom of expression also entails a responsibility of academic expression. This responsibility has two dimensions. First, academics have a responsibility to adhere to the norms for scientific quality that apply in their field of research and the norms regarding objectivity and impartiality that enable debate. Second, they have a responsibility to help ensure that other academics also adhere to these norms; for example, through peer review and the advancement of alternative hypotheses, or by challenging ideas using counter-arguments in debates. This is not a legal responsibility, but rather a professional one.

Ensuring that academic dissemination meets the quality standards is not a case for the state, through legal means or political pressure, nor for the academic institutions as such. It is a case for peers within the academic community, by the use of knowledge-based arguments and scientific methods.

Of the three grounds for the statutory freedom of expression, it is the seeking of truth that is particularly relevant to the academic freedom of expression. This means that the protection of this freedom is and must be strong – not out of consideration for the individual scholar, but for our common interest in developing new, quality-based knowledge and gaining new insights. Academic freedom of expression is also central to promoting several of the ideals underlying the rule of law and democracy:

In order for the state to fulfil its duty to «create conditions that facilitate open and enlightened public discourse» (cf. Article 100 (6) of the Norwegian Constitution), someone must contribute to enlightenment. Democracy is advanced by challenging established truths and constantly seeking new knowledge. Academic expressions can enhance understanding of the importance of diversity and inhibit conformity and uniformity. They can build trust. Research and innovation are crucial to resolve the major challenges in society today, such as understanding crisis, war and conflict, slowing climate change, preserving the natural environment, preventing an energy crisis, promoting public health and quality of life, and reducing inequalities. Good dissemination of results from research and innovation can also provide a competitive advantage. Academics should participate actively in the ongoing public discourse. This is decisive for a dynamic democracy, as well as serving to raise academic standards. Findings from research must be communicated not only to peers, but also to society at large.

The edited media largely share the same civic mission as academia in respect of seeking the truth and helping people understand the world (i.e. «enlightenment»). A more diverse media landscape with new digital and fully or partially unedited media and platforms allows more players to set the agenda. The exchange of information has increased tremendously, in both quantity and speed. Online public spheres are changing the way society acquires knowledge of the world. The absence of editors and other «gatekeepers» can be liberating and enable the exchange of more controversial findings and ideas. Without them, however, quality assurance, ethical considerations and attempts at balance in the presentation of ideas also disappear. The opportunities that the internet creates for the exchange of academic information also gives rise to new challenges: online public spheres generate huge volumes of incorrect information, for academics and the general public alike, which it is demanding to detect and correct.

Protecting and promoting academic freedom of expression is a significant global challenge. In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2021, the UN Secretary-General said «the war on science must end» and that the world must defend a common, empirically backed consensus around facts, science and knowledge. Online misinformation and integrity in public information are high on the UN agenda for 2022. In many countries, the authorities are obstructing open and free national and international research collaboration and dissemination in a variety of different ways. This is also happening in our surrounding areas. Collaboration with certain countries requires adherence to special rules to exercise due diligence. Chapter 4 describes some of the international trends and developments mentioned in the mandate that are affecting academic freedom of expression, and how organisations and individual countries are addressing them.

Academic work is regulated, funded and directed through a variety of mechanisms. General freedom of expression, which also protects academic expressions, is legally protected in the Constitution and through various human rights conventions. Elements of this freedom and the responsibilities that come with it can be found in the Norwegian Universities and University Colleges Act, Working Environment Act, Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act and Penal Code, among others. The relevant rules and tools of governance are discussed in chapter 5.

The Commission has received input on dilemmas and challenges related to academic freedom of expression. These are discussed in chapter 6. Together with the mandate, these form the point of departure for the Commission’s work. On a general level, they can be seen as challenges from above – from the authorities and clients who provide funding and make decisions, from below – from the broad public spheres in which scholars operate in various ways, from within – internally in academia, from and between management, colleagues and students, and from the outside – as influence from and interaction with the national, international and geopolitical landscapes of which academia is a part.

The challenges take many forms: political and structural priorities, funding, rules and guidelines as a framework for academic freedom of expression, security assessments, tensions within academia, an uncollegial climate of debate, a culture of conformity, cancel culture, disagreements about quality control, and challenges in connection with external dissemination and communication, such as populism, politicisation and media challenges. A harsh debate climate can be particularly demanding, not least for those working on controversial academic topics.

The Commission has not attempted to assess how extensive or representative the various challenges are. The purpose of highlighting them is to provide a general overview of the «perceived threats» facing academic freedom of expression. In Norway, the perceived threats are not related to classical censorship, whereby people in positions of power deny others the opportunity to impart or receive the information they want. The threats are rarely linked to legal issues with freedom of expression, but rather problems in the arena of expression. In varying ways, they have a dampening effect on what academics dare or want to share or discuss. In this way, they contribute to the most effective form of censorship: self-censorship.

Many of the challenges cannot be averted through the implementation of concrete measures. However, some can be remedied to a certain degree. The descriptions in chapter 6 form the basis for the measures the Commission proposes in chapter 7. These measures are not an end point, but rather a starting point for the further, ongoing development of academic freedom of expression throughout the entire sector.

The measures range from proposals for amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act and the current governance instruments and training requirements, to specific advice for various actors within academia. It is our clear impression that «hard» instruments, such as legislation and funding mechanisms, while necessary, are far from sufficient to ensure good academic freedom of expression. Many of the consultative statements the Commission has received suggest that organisational culture, good management, openness, transparency, discourse and training that continuously raise awareness are essential to develop a better culture of free speech in academia.

This kind of culture cannot be imposed from above; it must be built, not least from the bottom up, every single day. In order to stimulate the building of this kind of culture, the Commission has prepared a draft declaration on academic freedom of expression. The idea is that it can act as a springboard for discussion and raising awareness about academic freedom of expression at the institutions. The text is offered as a proposal; it is not intended to be regarded as a requirement or order. It can – and should be – criticised, modified and adapted locally. See figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1 

Figure 1.1

The declaration is intended for the institutions, for discussion and as applicable, adoption, there.

However, it is the individual employee and student who must exercise and administer the freedom and responsibility necessary to ensure adequate latitude in the public sphere for truth-seeking debate and exchange of ideas to be able to take place. In order to stimulate a better culture of free speech, the Commission has created a code of «ground rules» for free speech. They are intended to serve as a checklist for everyone who wants to promote a good culture of free speech. See figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2 

Figure 1.2

We must create the academic freedom of expression we want – for ourselves, for our colleagues and for society. Every single day.

The expectations concerning the role of academia in enlightenment and contributions to the public seeking of truth are enshrined in Article 100 (6) of the Norwegian Constitution. They are explicitly stated in section 1-1 (c) and section 1-3 (c) of the Norwegian Universities and University Colleges Act. The Commission expects universities and university colleges to emphasise clearly in their strategies that academic freedom of expression, academic dissemination aimed at the general public, and active participation in the public discourse are a natural and central part of the university’s mission. The same also applies to other research institutions that conduct academic activities. The institutions can stimulate this in various ways, for example by establishing reward systems for dissemination activities and by attaching greater importance to dissemination in connection with recruitment and promotions. The institutions should integrate dissemination into their compulsory researcher training at the PhD level and set requirements regarding dissemination aimed at the general public as part of doctoral degrees.

One prerequisite for good academic freedom of expression is astute leadership. This kind of leadership starts in harmonious times, and a good organisational culture that promotes collaboration and free speech is the most important instrument. This kind of culture cannot be created by the management alone, but the management can define important premises for it. It takes time, energy, expertise and constant maintenance. The Commission has identified several ways in which astute leadership at the institutions can contribute to a better culture of free speech. Managers and other leaders must have a basic understanding of freedom of expression. They should encourage and stimulate dissemination activities, they must receive training in how to deal with academic disagreements and criticism, they must have good routines to prepare both themselves and their academic and administrative staff for media storms, and they must ensure and communicate clearly that «unpopular» views will not be met with sanctions.

To build a culture of astute leadership, institutions should have systematic management development and training as a continuous activity. Management development programmes should include training in the necessary knowledge components, such as an introduction to the relevant legislation and regulations, labour market schemes, occupational health and safety, etc., as well as a relational cultural component. There should be separate modules on freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom of expression in particular, with a focus on ensuring understanding of the underlying grounds on which these freedoms rest. The Commission recommends that groups be established for people with management tasks on the same level, where over time they can build up trust, help each other, prevent conflicts and assist each other in finding good solutions where tensions arise linked to academic freedom of expression. It must be discussed how leadership can stimulate academic freedom of expression. One example of a good tool is continuous or repeated dilemma training with examples, ideally based on real-life cases and experiences.

It is not only managers and other leaders who need training in academic freedom of expression; staff and students also need this kind of training. The Commission proposes codification of the institutions’ responsibility to ensure that staff and students receive the necessary training.

The media landscape is constantly evolving. The Commission recommends that employees and students be offered media training – in respect of both edited channels and the various online media. This training must ensure an understanding of how and why edited media and online platforms work as they do, genre understanding – such as the difference between a feature article for publication in a newspaper and an interview, and training on how to prepare for, and deal with, media storms of varying natures individually and collegially.

A good culture of free speech must be built from the bottom up, but the Commission finds that, from a societal perspective, it is important to highlight the importance of dissemination and academic freedom of expression through democratic enshrinement in the law. The legislation that secures academic freedom of expression must be as precise as possible and must clarify both the institutional and the individual responsibilities for safeguarding and promoting this freedom.

The Commission is therefore proposing some amendments to section 1-5 of the Universities and University Colleges Act (see box 1.1). The proposals have four main objectives:

  • to clarify the institutional responsibility for the staff and students’ academic freedom

  • to specify that the institutional responsibility entails ensuring training in and the prerequisites for staff and students to be able to exercise academic freedom, including academic freedom of expression

  • to clarify that the academic freedom from external instructions and control also applies to the dissemination part of the academic tasks

  • to promote the individual right, and responsibility, to conduct academic dissemination.

Textbox 1.1 Proposed amendments to Section 1-5 of the Universities and University Colleges Act

(proposed changes in italics)

Section 1-5 Academic freedom and responsibility

(1) Universities and university colleges must promote and safeguard academic freedom, and those who exercise it. The institutions are responsible for ensuring that teaching, research and academic and artistic development work maintain a high professional level and are conducted in accordance with recognised scientific, artistic, educational and ethical principles.

(2) In other respects, universities and university colleges are entitled to establish their own academic and value basis within the framework laid down in or pursuant to law.

(3) Universities and university colleges must ensure that staff and students receive adequate training in and have the prerequisites for the exercise of academic freedom, including academic freedom of expression.

(4) Universities or university colleges may not be instructed regarding

  • a) the academic content of their teaching

  • b) the content of research or artistic or academic development work

  • c) the content of dissemination

  • d) individual appointments.

(5) Each person teaching at institutions subject to this Act has an independent academic responsibility for the contents and plan for the teaching within the framework that is determined by the institution or that follows from statutes or regulations pursuant to statutes.

(6) A person appointed to a position where research or academic or artistic development work is part of the duties, is entitled to choose the topic and method for his/her research or development work within the framework that follows from the employment contract or a special agreement.

(7) A person covered by the fifth or sixth paragraph has the right and an academic responsibility to conduct dissemination.

(8) Universities and university colleges must ensure transparency regarding the results of research or academic or artistic development work. Anyone appointed to a position as mentioned in the fifth paragraph is entitled to publish their results and must make sure such publication takes place. The relevant research basis must be made available in line with good practice in the field. The board may consent to postponed publication when required for legitimate reasons. No permanent restrictions in the right to publish results can be agreed or stipulated beyond what follows from statute or pursuant to statute.

The reasoning behind the proposed amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act is discussed in section 7.2.2. Some organisations that have submitted consultative statements have argued that other Acts of law should also be amended. The Commission explains why it is not proposing any other legislative amendments in section 7.2.3.

The Commission is aware that new development agreements are going to be drawn up in 2022 for all 21 public universities and university colleges. In section 7.3.1, it is proposed that the development agreements contain goals related to dissemination. These kinds of goals could be qualitative or quantitative and may vary among the institutions. Since the private university colleges, the Norwegian Police University College and the Norwegian Defence University College do not have development agreements, the Commission recommends that greater importance be attached to dissemination activities in the letters of grant commitment and letters of allocation to these institutions.

The current funding system for universities and university colleges does not include any reward for dissemination activities. In view of the fact that all the other academic work tasks are included in the funding system, the Commission finds that the importance of dissemination activities is under-communicated. Research and teaching are counted, measured and rewarded, and the same must also apply to dissemination. The Commission therefore proposes the introduction of a dissemination indicator in the funding system. If changes are made to the general funding system, for example through the removal of research indicators, the question of an indicator for dissemination must be considered in light of this.

The current reporting system for dissemination activities is extremely complicated, which is probably a contributing factor to the lack of registration. The Commission proposes that the reporting system for dissemination activities be vastly simplified and concentrate on the main forms of academic dissemination. This proposal is independent of whether or not a dissemination indicator is introduced in the funding system.

Pursuant to Article 100 (6) of the Norwegian Constitution, the state has a duty to create conditions that facilitate open and enlightened public discourse. It is important for society and academia to communicate basic knowledge to the population, and to make people realise that this knowledge is the result of research conducted over a long period of time and investments in the knowledge society. The dissemination of knowledge must primarily take place in the language that is the common language in Norway. Universities and university colleges therefore play an important role in ensuring the maintenance and development of well-functioning Norwegian academic and technical language and providing training and follow-up to academics who do not have Norwegian as their first language. Measures to ensure the maintenance and development of well-functioning Norwegian academic and technical language in academia are presented in section 7.4.6.

Norwegian academia must navigate an international landscape that can at times be challenging. In section 7.5, the Commission provides advice on how the authorities can support Norway’s work on academic freedom of expression internationally. Among other things, we propose support for the Students at Risk and Scholars at Risk schemes, support for the UN and EU’s work on academic freedom of expression, stronger expectations regarding academic freedom of expression vis-à-vis countries that receive funding through the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway Grants schemes, and that academic freedom of expression be included in the work of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Commission recommends that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs collaborate with the sector on their application of the export control regulations in connection with knowledge partnerships, and that decisions on this be lifted to the government level.

This report does not by any means constitute a conclusion of the work to achieve better academic freedom of expression. But we do hope it can help strengthen and advance the work that is already being done. Efforts to safeguard academic freedom of expression must be continuous and require input from all actors within and adjacent to academia. In view of their academic freedom, it is essentially only academics themselves who can resolve the challenges facing academic freedom of expression. The climate of free speech can never be better than each individual strives to make it. Like knowledge, a good academic culture of free speech must be built from the bottom up, every single day.

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