A Personal Loss of Academic Freedom

Dr. Phil Bishop

Professor of exercise physiology, Bishop has served as a visiting scientist in the NASA Exercise Countermeasures Program at Johnson Space Center, Houston.

I have one but one distinction. I am the only U.S. professor who has been restricted by a court of law (the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals) from mentioning Christianity in a university classroom.

A personal experience

In 1987, as an untenured assistant professor of Physical Education at the University of Alabama, I was issued a university memorandum telling me to refrain from any mention of Christianity in my classroom or on campus again. What would you do?

Many Christians suggested that I had yielded my rights to free speech when I accepted the job as professor at a public University. Clearly, they insisted, it was a condition of employment and I was free to quit the University and talk about Christianity as much as I desired.  It was improper for an academic who was not a religious studies professor to talk about religion anyway.

Perhaps not surprisingly to some, the Court of Appeals sided with the nay-sayers and ruled that the university had the right “to set the curriculum” and as such my employer was perfectly within their bounds to restrict my speech in any reasonable manner. In contrast, one of the Circuit Judges (there was a three-judge panel to hear the appeal) asked an important question of the University attorney. The University was arguing against the Federal District Judge, who had ruled that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and academic freedom existed particularly for the purpose of allowing such detestable speech even if it was favorable to Christianity. The Circuit judge asked, “Does this mean the University will post a monitor in every classroom to rule on what is, and what is not part of the curriculum?” His statement captures the essence of the argument.

What academic freedom means to students

Academic freedom, though perhaps underappreciated, means a great deal to students.  Many students will have their greatest exposure to the most educated group of people in the world during their days in the university. Whether brilliant or ordinary, university professors are well educated and highly expert in their specialty area. Students are paying for, and deserve to hear, what these bright people have to say.

However, students (or their parents) pay tuition to learn about particular subject matter.  Faculty are obligated to provide students with that subject matter as well as its implications. Further, faculty have a much restricted opportunity to pass along their views on many matters beyond the curriculum as long as those views are respectful both of students, and of the need to fully cover course materials.  A university education is more than just vocational training; it is an opportunity to learn to think, to reflect, to analyze, and to form arguments and grounded opinions. Faculty sometimes must stray briefly beyond the strict curricular bounds to capitalize on opportunities to educate students, in the broadest sense of the word.

What academic freedom means to Faculty

Faculty have the freedom, within their academic specialty, to provide information regardless of how controversial it may be. This, as a matter of respect, must be done in a manner appropriate to the level of the student, done in as least-offensive manner as possible and done with respect to the course content.  Faculty should recognize that students are paying tuition and signing up for courses with reasonable expectations of receiving information relevant to the course.

Faculty have the opportunity to engage students to provoke them to think, to reflect, to analyze, and to form arguments and grounded opinions. Academic freedom means, as the Circuit judge suggested, that it would be inappropriate, impractical and chilling for the University to monitor classes to censor speech. Academic freedom does not mean that teachers can ignore the curriculum or act disrespectfully towards students or anyone else.  It does mean that the best, most radical, and perhaps most helpful thinking of the faculty will not be censored.

What academic freedom does NOT mean to Faculty or Students

Like business transactions, and many other aspects of human discourse, there is an element of trust between supervisors, administrators, students, tuition-paying parents, and the professors who teach courses.  When teachers violate this trust, students and others with a vested interest are entitled to seek relief. 

In my personal case, academic freedom did not mean that I could spend substantial amounts of time discussing Christianity in a physiology class, and the university never alleged that.  Academic freedom did not mean that I could speak disrespectfully of other religions or beliefs, and the university never alleged that either. Academic freedom did not mean that I could brow-beat, intimidate, or pressure students to adopt or feign any particular philosophical belief system. The university did allege that by virtue of my position as a teacher, I was doing so merely by stating a Christian view.  I object.  Every professor bears a certain mantle of inherent authority, and to use that as a basis for denying academic freedom is the essence of prior restraint of speech.


The issue of Academic Freedom is near to my heart.  From my biased perspective, academic freedom can never be, contrary to the US Constitution and to numerous court ruling, content specific. That is, I have never heard of any colleague being restricted from mentioning any other religion in the public University.

Many of my colleagues around the country feel total academic freedom to attack Christianity. And I defend their right to do so. Neither Jehovah, nor Christianity, is awed by hostility. My personal experience is that any topic is open for debate on the public university campus, except for Christianity. And I say that without rancor. In fact the public university’s distaste for Christianity is part of why I think teaching here is so great. I love arguing the minority position. I love being salt and light in a place where Christianity is least welcome in the USA.  God made me for just such a ministry and place.

In my own case and to my surprise I was not fired by the university.  In fact, I was promoted on time, twice and given nice pay raises.  I have had a terrific career.  Personally I benefitted greatly from my time in court and would do it again. However, the content-specific restriction on my academic freedom seems the worst form of academic censorship.

In the end, the Holy Spirit through James (James 1:1) gave the best advice.  “Count it all joy when you encounter various trials…”