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III. Academic Freedom: Definition and Legal Protections

Academic freedom gives members of the academic community the right to conduct and participate in educational activities without arbitrary interference from state authorities or private individuals or groups, including popular political, religious, or other social movements. It is a broad principle that protects professors and students and applies to the complete range of academic pursuits—formal and informal, inside the classroom and beyond. International law requires states to respect academic freedom, a principle based on a series of basic and widely accepted human rights. In many countries, domestic law provides explicit protection for academics. Egypt is bound to ensure academic freedom for its citizens by both the treaties it has ratified and its constitution, which includes safeguards for the relevant rights.

Right to Education

The principle of academic freedom stems in part from the internationally recognized right to education. This right is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (UDHR)8 and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of 1966 (ICESCR) to which Egypt has been a state party since 1982.9 According to the official commentary on the ICESCR, Article 13(2) requires education to “include the elements of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaptability.” This means there must be a sufficient number of institutions; these institutions must not discriminate and must be physically proximate and economically affordable (except for higher education, which need only be accessible “on the basis of capacity” of the individual); the education must be appropriate for students and “of good quality”; and it must be flexible enough to respond to different students and times.10

These conditions alone, however, do not guarantee the right to education. The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which interprets the ICESCR, has stated that “the right to education can only be enjoyed if accompanied by the academic freedom of staff and students.”11 Academic freedom is particularly important in higher education. Its community of young adults and highly educated teachers and researchers includes individuals more inclined to be politically engaged and, therefore, likely to be attacked by intolerant authorities or private citizens.

The CESCR’s definition of academic freedom consists of two parts. The first component relates to members of the academy—professors and students, as individuals or groups. In its comment on Article 13, the committee wrote,

Members of the academic community, individually or collectively, are free to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge and ideas, through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation or writing. Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.12

According to this definition, academic freedom encompasses a series of other widely accepted human rights, including freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. These civil and political rights are enumerated in the UDHR and legally binding on states parties to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).13 Egypt ratified the ICCPR in 1982.

The second component of academic freedom relates to the universities themselves rather than members of the community. The CESCR’s comment explains, “The enjoyment of academic freedom requires the autonomy of institutions of higher education.”14 In order to serve as a forum where academics can freely exchange knowledge and ideas, universities must be independent of the state.

While governments are the primary protectors of academic freedom, CESCR also places duties on individuals and institutions. Members of the academic community have the “duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.”15 Universities, meanwhile, must be held accountable, especially for their management of state funding. “Given the substantial public investments made in higher education, an appropriate balance has to be struck between institutional autonomy and accountability. While there is no single model, institutional arrangements should be fair, just and equitable, and as transparent and participatory as possible.”16 Academics and universities not only are beneficiaries of academic freedom, but also play an important role in ensuring its protection.

Rights Belonging to Members of the Academic Community

Freedom of Opinion

Freedom of opinion is the first building block of academic freedom. Education involves not only the acquisition of knowledge but also the development of ideas. The CESCR specifically mentions that academics are free to “develop . . . ideas” and “express . . .  opinions.”17 Without freedom of opinion, academia would produce only information with no interpretation or analysis. International law protects this right in the ICCPR, Article 19(1) of which says, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.”18 The right is absolute; the law prohibits interference under all circumstances.19

It can be difficult to judge whether a government or private actor has violated this right because that requires understanding what is in someone’s mind.  According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, “What exactly constitutes an impermissible interference with the freedom of opinion is not an easy matter to determine. In general, it is possible to speak of such an interference when an individual is influenced against his will and when this influence is exerted by threat, coercion or the use of force.”20 Censorial pressures can also become routinized to the point where many people take for granted that certain opinions are unacceptable and fail to recognize unlawful restrictions on their academic freedom.

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression is an essential part of academic freedom because it allows for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. As the CESCR explains, academics are free to pursue this exchange “through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation or writing.”21 Education is a collective as well as an individual undertaking, which depends on discussion and debate. In the classroom, professors need freedom to teach and students to ask questions and try out ideas. In research, academics must have access to knowledge provided by others and the ability to present their own scholarship publicly. Freedom of expression is also important in less formal forums, such as student clubs and campus demonstrations.

International law protects freedom of expression. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”22 Expression may not be limited by content or form. The provision also encompasses freedom of information, which protects an individual’s right actively to seek information.23

International law allows freedom of expression to be restricted only in certain circumstances. According to Article 19(3), restrictions must be “provided by law,” meaning they must be laid out in advance in statute or common law, and they must be “necessary: a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.”24 To be necessary, a restriction “must be proportional in severity and intensity to the purpose being sought and may not become the rule.”25 International law prohibits pre-publication censorship; academics should have the opportunity to present their work before the state rules it impermissible.26 Although the law allows some limits to be placed on freedom of expression, they are appropriate only under exigent circumstances and must be interpreted narrowly.27

Freedom of Association

University life is not confined to the classroom and library or laboratory. It also includes gatherings, formal and informal, of members of the community. In its discussion of academic freedom, the CESCR specifically mentions the freedom “to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.”28 International law protects such formal gatherings under freedom of association. According to Article 22 of the ICCPR, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”29 People have the right to form associations, and those associations must be free to act on behalf of their members.30 Although the article only names trade unions, freedom of association extends to groups of varying forms and purposes. “Religious societies, political parties, commercial undertakings and trade unions are as protected by Art. 22 as cultural or human rights organizations, soccer clubs or associations of stamp collectors. Moreover the legal form of an association is basically unrestricted,” says a respected treatise on the ICCPR.31 On campus, therefore, freedom of association provides protection not only for teachers’ unions, a type of trade union,32 but also for student unions and student clubs.

As with freedom of expression, the ICCPR allows for some limited restrictions on freedom of association. These restrictions must be “prescribed by law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”33 “Necessary” again refers to proportionality. The addition of “in a democratic society” means the restrictions must “be oriented along the basic democratic values of pluralism, tolerance, broadmindedness and peoples’ sovereignty.”34 The permitted purposes for interference are essentially the same as in Article 19, except that “public safety” is added to the list.35

Freedom of Assembly

Freedom of assembly protects less formal gatherings on campus, most notably student and faculty demonstrations. According to the CESCR, academic freedom includes the “liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work.”36 One of the most common forums for expressing criticism of the government is a demonstration. Such gatherings are important for the political life of a country. In many countries, campus demonstrations are often the first sign of broader public discontent with the government policies. Article 21 of the ICCPR says, “The right to peaceful assembly shall be recognized.”37 It gives professors and students the right to organize and participate in campus protests or other gatherings, as long as they are peaceful.38 The restrictions in Article 21 are almost identical to those in Article 22.

Rights Attached to the Institution: University Autonomy

Academic freedom extends not only to members of the academic community but also to educational institutions. According to the CESCR, university autonomy is a prerequisite for the exercise of professors’ and students’ individual rights. The committee defines autonomy as “that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision-making by institutions of higher education in relation to their academic work, standards, management and related activities.”39 Educational institutions should be able to make their own rules, administer themselves, and be free of control by state security forces. Autonomy is especially important for universities because they provide a forum for high-level debate on controversial topics. When they are subject to state interference, universities cannot serve as a safe place to engage challenging issues and intellectual life suffers.

Protection from State and Non-State Actors

Both government officials and private citizens and groups can threaten academic freedom.Under international law, states must take the necessary steps, including implementation of domestic legislation, to protect the rights that make up academic freedom from such threats. According to Article 2(1) of the ICCPR, “Each State Party to the Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”40 The obligation to respect means states must not restrict rights, unless allowed under exceptions such as those found in Articles 19, 21, and 22. The obligation to ensure requires states to take proactive steps, when necessary, to guarantee the rights laid out in the covenant.41 The ICESCR, in which the right to education is enshrined, imposes a similar duty on states parties.42

International law also provides protection from actors independent of the state.  The CESCR explains that individuals have the “duty to respect the academic freedom of others.”43 The ICCPR places the burden for enforcing that duty on its states parties. Article 2’s clause about ensuring rights means that states parties are obligated to prevent the violation of the covenant by private parties.44 The ICCPR explicitly lays out some actions states can take. The duty to ensure extends beyond the ICCPR’s specific examples, however; states must take any actions necessary to guarantee third parties do not infringe on academics’ legal rights.45


Direct repression of academic activities often leads individuals to censor themselves. Professors or students who have been repressed may be too frightened to exercise their rights again. Academics who observe the intimidation or punishment of their colleagues may choose not to test the system because of either fear or desire to avoid the bureaucratic hassle. Such a chilling effect on freedom of opinion and expression can be as great a threat to academic freedom as direct repression. It also discourages academics from participating in associations or assemblies. International law holds states responsible for preventing such interferences with academic freedom. According to Article 2 of the ICCPR, states parties must “ensure” that individuals have the rights laid out in the covenant. This obligation includes eliminating the repression that causes self-censorship and creating an environment in which members of the academic community feel free to exercise their rights.

Other Human Rights Protections

As outlined above, the principle of academic freedom encompasses a range of basic civil and political rights. The CESCR recognizes that the principle extends beyond the most obviously related rights and includes “the liberty . . . to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.”46 States routinely ignore this provision. For example, they often use torture, arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and extrajudicial killings, all forbidden under international law, to silence their critics in the academy. Such actions represent both egregious abuses of universally accepted human rights and further restrictions on academic freedom.

Egyptian Law

In many countries, Egypt included, domestic law provides additional protection for academic freedom. The Egyptian constitution includes four articles that specifically discuss education. Article 18 states, “Education is a right guaranteed by the State. It is obligatory in the primary stage and the State shall work to extend [its] obligation to other stages.”47 The constitution thus lays out the right to education, which, as discussed above, requires academic freedom. Article 18 concludes, “The State shall supervise all branches of education and guarantee the independence of universities and scientific research centres, with a view to linking all this with the requirements of society and production.”48 This part of the article specifically mentions one of the requirements for academic freedom under international law, i.e. university autonomy. The article’s call for state supervision and the mandate to link education to “society and production,” however, could be read to authorize inappropriate limits on that autonomy. The remaining three education articles state that “Religious education shall be a principal subject in the course of general education” (Article 19), “Education in the State educational institutions shall be free of charge in its various stages” (Article 20), and “Combating illiteracy shall be a national duty for which all the people’s energies should be mobilized” (Article 21).49 The latter two deal more with the right to education than academic freedom per se.

Other provisions of the Egyptian constitution protect the basic human rights essential to academic freedom. Article 47, which guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, says, “Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law. Self-criticism and constructive criticism is the guarantee for the safety of the national structure.”50 The constitution also devotes an article to the protection of research. According to Article 49, “The State shall guarantee the freedom of scientific research and literary, artistic and cultural invention and provide the necessary means for its realisation.”51 The constitution protects gatherings of academics with provisions related to assembly and association. Article 54 states, “Citizens shall have the right to peaceable and unarmed private assembly, without the need for private notice. Security men should not attend these private meetings. Public meetings, processions and gatherings are allowed within the limits of the law.”52 Article 55 gives citizens “the right to form societies as defined in the law” as long as their activities are not “hostile to the social system, clandestine or have a military character.”53 These articles cover the main components of academic freedom.

Despite constitutional protections that are generally in line with international law, Egypt has failed in practice to protect academic freedom. As will be shown below, the government has created and fostered a system of repression that stifles independent thinking and the free exchange of ideas. State and non-state repression as well as the self-censorship they cause pervade all areas of university life, including the classroom, research, student activities, and campus demonstrations.

[8] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), G.A. Res. 217 (III 1948), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71, December 10, 1948, art. 26.

[9] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316, 993 U.N.T.S. 3, December 16, 1966, art. 13.

[10] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment 13: The Right to Education, E/C.12/1999/10, 1999, paras. 6, 17-20. For ratification information, see Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Status of Ratification of the Principle International Human Rights Treaties, as of June 9, 2004, p. 4, (retrieved July 21, 2004).

[11] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 38.

[12] Ibid., para. 39.

[13] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316, 999 U.N.T.S. 171, December 16, 1966.

[14] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 40.

[15] Ibid., para. 39.

[16] Ibid., para. 40.

[17] Ibid., para. 39.

[18] ICCPR, art. 19(1). This right is also enshrined in Article 19 of the UDHR.

[19] Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: CCPR Commentary (Kehl Am Rhein, Germany: N.P. Engel, 1993), p. 339.

[20] Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression: Report of the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Abid Hussain, pursuant to Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1993/45, Fifty-First Session, E/CN.4/1995/32, December 14, 1994, para. 27.

[21] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 39.

[22] ICCPR, art. 19(2). This right is also enshrined in Article 19 of the UDHR.

[23] Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, p. 343.

[24] ICCPR, art. 19(3). 

[25] Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, p. 351. See, e.g., Article 19, “The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information,” November 1996, (retrieved July 21, 2004).

[26] “Only with respect to pre-censorship do the travaux préparatoires reveal that an absolute prohibition was intended.” Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, p. 345. 

[27] Ibid., p. 352 (“the relatively limited number of reasons for permissible interference indicates that such are to be interpreted narrowly in cases of doubt.”). For example, restrictions “to protect national security are permissible only in serious cases of political or military threat to the entire nation.” Ibid., p. 355.

[28] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 39.

[29] ICCPR, art. 22. This right is also enshrined in Article 20 of the UDHR.

[30] Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, p. 387.

[31] Ibid., pp. 386-87

[32] This report does not address teachers’ unions. For information on the relationship between teachers’ unions and freedom of association, see Human Rights Watch, “Lessons in Repression: Violations of Academic Freedom in Ethiopia,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 15, no. 2 (a), January 2003, pp. 32-36, 46-48.

[33] ICCPR, art. 22(2).

[34] Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, p. 394.

[35] Other legitimate interferences must be “in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” ICCPR, art. 22(2).

[36] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 39.

[37] ICCPR, art. 21. The UDHR lists freedom of assembly along with freedom of association in Article 20.

[38] Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, p. 372. “Assembly” refers to “intentional, temporary gatherings of several persons for a specific purpose.” Ibid., p. 373. Nowak explains, “From its location in the Covenant following freedom of expression, it may therefore be inferred that the specific protection of freedom of assembly aims at the discussion or proclamation of information and ideas within the meaning of Art. 19(2) that is not dealt with or guaranteed elsewhere.” Ibid., p. 374.

[39] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 40.

[40] ICCPR, art. 2(1) (emphasis added).

[41] These duties represent, respectively, the negative and positive character of civil and political rights. Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, pp. 36-37.

[42] Article 2(2) of the ICESCR says, “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.” ICESCR, art. 2(2) (emphasis added).

[43] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 39.

[44] Nowak explains that the rights relevant to academic freedom all have “horizontal effects,” which means states are obligated to ensure they are not violated by private parties. Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, pp. 340, 344, 387, and 375 (freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly, respectively).

[45] ICCPR, art. 2.

[46] CESCR, General Comment 13, para. 39.

[47] Egyptian Constitution, The Middle East Library for Economic Services, trans., November 1998, art. 18.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., arts. 19, 20, 21.

[50] Ibid., art. 47.

[51] Ibid., art. 49.

[52] Ibid., art. 54.

[53] Ibid., art. 55.

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