Academic Freedom in the Digital Age
Academic Freedom in the Digital Age

If you’ve experienced this at least once in your life, you’re not alone. Multiple people have gone through feeling like their words are unimpactful online and therefore choose to remain silent. One of the drawbacks of this in the social media sphere, is that it hinders logical debating. Some people may often have second thoughts about voicing their opinion from fear of being ridiculed or dismissed. All these words can shape society and it’s a human right to ask questions, without any existing fear.

Every scholar and student in the world should exercise their right to academic freedom. It is a way of conviction that describes the right of teachers and students to teach, study and pursue knowledge without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations or public pressure.

With the fluidity of the interweb, there have been places where people choose to speak more freely. Websites such as reddit were spawned by one of the co-founders Aaaron Schwartz. He invented “RSS” which aids people to learn all the information they thirst for without visiting all the different websites. He simplified a tedious task and was a catalyst for future websites such as LinkedIn. Aaron had quite the political radical viewpoint where he believed in free speech and bringing public access to the public domain. Some people claimed that his actions were far-reaching, but his actions have become increasingly relevant to understand in this day and age.

But what exactly did Aaaron Swartz do?

He believed that the work done by scientists at colleges should be viewable by everyone. He accessed JSTOR in MIT, a science virtual library and went “out of bounds” according to MIT. He traversed where he wasn’t supposed to, in order to pull information which, he was actually allowed to do. The government’s indictment towards Aaron was over the top and unnecessary. His actions didn’t pose actual danger to MIT, JSTOR or the public. He was just an intelligent young man beyond his time that couldn’t understand the restrictions based on academic freedom. His eventual demise led him to hang himself. Which many of his loved ones agree that it was out of fear and not solely due to depression.

So how is academic freedom relevant to us?

According to Civitas, a website that breeds open discussion: “The first step towards a philosophy of academic freedom is to ask why freedom of speech is the ‘foundational’ freedom.” Foundational freedom requires us to question everything we know to be false and to bring to light the idea that the Internet can bring about quietism. The very idea that information and knowledge need to be paid for on the internet, already opens a door of exclusivity. By this, I don’t mean the good kind. It can also mean that only the rich, powerful and intelligent can have access to certain information. This kind of world can bring about a mass of questionable sources. Our role as free thinkers is to reevaluate the news that we read and our access to gain knowledge. It’s important to always think openly and question the nature of laws and rules just as Aaron had done while he was still alive.

“On the internet, everybody is licensed to speak it’s a question of who gets heard.”

-Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)


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