In the heated debates about academic freedom in Germany, participants rarely take the time to specify their conception of “academic freedom.” When asked, they frequently rely on the legal conception of academic freedom, referring to §5 of the German constitution. Implicitly invoking a legal conception of academic freedom is especially popular in assessing examples of so-called “cancel culture” or “political correctness.” However, most examples cannot be interpreted to violate academic freedom in the narrow legal sense. To keep up their analysis, critics of “cancel culture” therefore must presuppose a broader conception of academic freedom than the legal one.
What are the general requirements of broader conceptions of academic freedom? Two are especially important: First, any conception of academic freedom must have a realistic account of the scientific practices it aims to protect. Second, any conception of academic freedom needs a notion of freedom suited for the activities of the researchers working in these practices. Making explicit these two general requirements have serious implications for current debates because it changes the assessment what the most prevalent threats to academic freedom are.