Academic Freedom: Are There Limits to Inquiry?

Published: 2014-04-26

On April 26, 2014, a conference was held at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. This gathering was rather unusual in the history of such things, since it involved the discussion of a topic that isn’t talked about in American academia:  Are there boundaries to academic inquiry? This was the main theme, using JFK, 9/11 and the Holocaust as test cases, but there were ancillary questions that rose in company with it. Are there topics of research and scholarly endeavor that are outside of the pale of legitimate research? Do subjects exist that are simply too radioactive for the professoriate to risk pursuit, since the outcome will likely be marginalization, censure, or even the loss of promotion or position?

This freedom of teaching and inquiry was, in theory, to be respected and protected by the university administration, departments, and the board of trustees. However, the transplant of lehrfreiheit from Germany to America was hardly a smooth process; in fact, the sapling of academic freedom was a spindly creature, and arrived without any extensive preparation of its soil. Any new institutional principle requires time to develop the necessary custom and usage for robust survival. Our self-image to the contrary, America was not a setting that was particularly friendly to nonconformity in its educational institutions, even at the university level. No nation, Germany included, allowed academic freedom in the broadest sense, but the United States has always had a certain expectation of social conformity in its colleges, and later, in its universities.

As a result, academic freedom was a doctrine without deep traditions or support in American culture, law, and practice. Obviously, the question of academic freedom and tenure have been present from the beginning of the modern professoriate, almost exactly a century ago now.

It has been controversial from then until now, since there have always been conflicts between the scholars, researchers, and teachers who surf the edge of new knowledge and understanding on the one hand, and those who are not pleased with any such efforts that threaten their power, the status quo, the social order, or the myths and organized ignorance that they prefer. This has been the trend in American higher education since the Civil War, and has led to university boards generally being bastions of reactionary worldview by the period 1890-1920. The conflicts between the trustees and academic administration on the one hand, and fiercely independent faculty members on the other, have not changed. Indeed, they have sharpened, since many topics of contemporary research are extraordinarily controversial.

The intent of our academic freedom conference was therefore to bring together a handful of professors to give consideration to these sorts of contentious inquiries – some very contentious – to examine the boundaries of academic freedom and tenure.

On the agenda for our acid test: The JFK assassination as a coup d’état; evidence of 9/11 as an American-Israeli joint “false flag” operation; faculty terminations without proper due process due to unpopular views; the possibility of governmental conspiracies to mold public opinion; and, most controversially, the re-evaluation of the death toll of the Holocaust – is the figure of 6 million Jewish persons exterminated during this event credible and verifiable?

The participants included:

Dr. Kevin Barrett:  Kevin Barrett’s presentation summarized his roller-coaster experiences as an American Islamic scholar studying 9/11 and the Holocaust. He detailed his confrontations with the conservative media (e.g., Fox News), state politicians, and ultimately with the administration of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Barrett’s controversial views and lines of inquiry were attacked as attempts to propagandize students, a charge that he refuted convincingly in his presentation. Despite support from many of his students, as well as professors across the nation, and his very rare area of expertise, one of obvious importance to contemporary American scholarship and understanding, Kevin Barrett’s exercise of academic freedom would lead to his termination from the university, and his blacklisting from teaching there again. He strongly defended his right to pursue topics like 9/11 and the Holocaust, and to teach and publish freely without threats to his position and livelihood.

Dr. David W. Robinson:  David Robinson, a scholar in the history of American higher education, addressed the historical framework of academic freedom, concentrating upon two particular areas. Having sketched the general European roots, Robinson gave consideration to the (in)famous case of Jane Stanford’s insistence upon the termination of Professor Edward A. Ross at Stanford University, due to the fact that he held, taught, and published views that she considered to be obnoxious. Despite support from professors all over the country, her will was carried out by then university president David Starr. It continues to be an emblematic case, with many parallels to experiences explored by other members of the conference, especially to Kevin Barrett and Nicholas Kollerstrom. This was followed by a discussion of the marginalization of the university faculty today by the employment of overwhelming numbers of adjuncts, who have no protections against loss of academic freedom, since they have no ongoing status or tenure. Without these, they are at the mercy of the universities and colleges, and unable to exercise their right to academic freedom.

Dr. Nicholas Kollerstrom:  Nicholas Kollerstrom, a scholar of the history of science, appeared at our conference via Skype. His presentation was a summary of some of his research on the Holocaust, which indicates that there are a number of aspects of the traditional narrative that do not match the scientific and physical evidence that modern techniques can access. This includes data points like the physical layout of the crematoria, the logistics of mass disposal of the bodies at the scale usually indicated (6 million), the incompleteness of camp records, and residual cyanide levels detectable today. As a result of his research, teaching, and publication of his findings on this subject, in 2008, Kollerstrom incurred the sudden termination of his honorary appointment with the University College of London. He pointed out that there was no substantive reason for this sudden dismissal, other than the “political incorrectness” and controversial nature of his published research on the extent and manner of the Holocaust.

Dr. Winfield J. Abbe:  Winfield Abbe’s presentation gave the specific case of academic prior restraint, department politics, and dismissal without proper due process at the University of Georgia-Athens. As a member of the science faculty there, he observed instances of “gross abuses” of the evaluation, assessment, termination, and tenure process at that university. Lengthy documentation was provided to substantiate his views.

Stephen Francis (host):  Stephen Francis acted as host for the conference, and kept the presentations on track, coordinating the technical aspects of audio and video recording, as well as the necessary Skype link for Dr. Kollerstrom. In addition, he did a presentation entitled, “Getting history right:  There should be no limits to inquiry.” As the title implies, Francis holds strongly to the view that academic freedom and scholarly inquiry extends to even the most controversial of topics, including the JFK assassination, 9/11, and the Holocaust. Many of the forces that led to these events have also been behind many other trends in our social development and history since World War II, including rising crime and prison populations, wars for resources and American imperial power throughout the world, the frustration of needed social programs like national health care, and so on. The results of these inquiries can then be sorted out by the tried-and-true means of peer-review and public vetting of the results. Prior restraint should not be exercised via such “gatekeepers” as Noam Chomsky and Cary Nelson. Only then can we get at the truth of the real powers-that-be in our national and world civilizations.

Dr. Jim Fetzer:  Jim Fetzer’s very cogent presentation focused on providing a strategic overview of the prior restraint being exercised upon contemporary academic inquiry, due to the imposition of censorship, denial of promotion or tenure, and the extraordinary pressures placed upon professors to desist from “politically incorrect” or highly controversial lines of research. Fetzer pointed out work done on subjects like the JFK assassination (especially as a coup d’état by LBJ and company) were dicey enough, but were less risky than taking the step of investigating 9/11 as a “false flag” operation, examining the Boston Bomber incident, tracking down the truth about mass shootings like Sandy Hook, or (especially) doing substantive research about the extent of the victim count in the Holocaust. In all of these topics, Fetzer pointed out that valid subjects for valuable investigations existed, using the usual existing processes and protocols of scholarly discourse. If academic freedom were truly what it is proclaimed to be in America, then there would be no significant resistance to these subjects. Instead, he points out, those who pursue such things (for example, Kevin Barrett or Nicholas Kollerstrom) face immense pressure, censure, shunning, loss of promotion, and even termination. According to Fetzer, no area of research should be out of bounds for a professor seeking the truth.

NOTE: For those who would like to watch the complete program on Academic Freedom, see “Academic Freedom: Are there limits to inquiry? JFK, 9/11 and the Holocaust”, archived at

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Author(s): David W. Robinson
Title: Academic Freedom: Are There Limits to Inquiry?
Published: 2014-04-26
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 8, 2015, 3:55 p.m.
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