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December 21, 2023

NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union today announced it had sent a letter to Barnard College President Laura Rosenbury, expressing concern over a new policy that requires departments to submit the content of their websites for review and approval by the Office of the Provost. Such ‘prior restraint’ flies in the face of both free speech principles and academic freedom and comes at a time when many universities face public pressure to limit what research, teachings, and discourse are acceptable on campuses.

“If private campuses decide that they can stifle political discourse they don’t approve of, then schools are no longer a haven for debate, discussion, and learning,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Barnard’s new review process stifles the give and take of political and academic scholarship and is a flagrant example of ‘prior restraint,’ the most restrictive kind of censorship because it curtails speech before it is uttered. In this moment, when academic freedom is under attack, the academic community must encourage more speech to refute ideas that may be objectionable, invite more voices into difficult conversations, and create an environment where faculty and students can voice their beliefs.”

Barnard’s new policy came after the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies posted a statement supportive of the Palestinian people while also deploring both the Hamas and Israeli attacks on civilians. In an unprecedented act, the Barnard administration removed the language from the website and soon after announced its new review policy. While many campuses have suggested they are grappling with complex concerns about safety and wellbeing as it relates to speech on campus, the Barnard administration has not raised similar concerns in making its directive or issuing its new policy.

A central tenet of academic freedom, as developed by the American Association of University Professors, holds that donors, politicians, and administrators must not be permitted to intrude into scholarly discourse and must not dictate the content of academic speech. This principle is not limited to the classroom, extending also to departmental websites, which are crucial to teaching and scholarly discourse. The NYCLU letter argues that at a time when academic freedom is under attack by donors and politicians, it is vital that the academic community stand together in support of its most fundamental principles.

“As scholars and educators, we feel that it is our mandate and our duty to share our expertise on these issues and to bring forth resources that people can rely upon in making their own evaluations,” said Elizabeth Bernstein, Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “The College’s new policy requiring prior approval for posting on departmental websites has interfered with this mission, infringing on our academic freedom and, more importantly, constraining our ability to share our scholarship and resources with our students and with the general public.”

To protect academic freedom and bolster the exchange of political beliefs, the New York Civil Liberties Union has suggested an alternative policy whereby Barnard faculty curate their department websites as they see fit as long as the page identifies the author whose views are being published and includes disclaimers, where needed, to distinguish the views of faculty and students from those of the College.