In the United States, academic freedom enjoys some degree of protection under the First Amendment, as an essential element of a democratic society. For example, in 1957, in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, the Court declared:

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation…. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

These sentiments apply as well in public school settings (Keyishian v. Board of Education, 1967):

Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” The classroom is peculiarly the “marketplace of ideas.” The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth “out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.

Academic freedom, in its broadest sense, is “the freedom of teachers and students to express their ideas in school without religious or political or institutional restrictions.” A more expansive definition and defense was articulated by Justice Frankfurter, in the Sweezy case:

Academic freedom means the exclusion of governmental intervention in the intellectual life of a university. It matters little whether such intervention occurs avowedly or through action that inevitably tends to check the ardor and fearlessness of scholars, qualities at once so fragile and so indispensable for fruitful academic labor….. It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail `the four essential freedoms’ of a university — to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.

Although academic freedom is related to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the two are not co-extensive. First, the First Amendment applies only to public schools, colleges and universities, which are legally deemed to be “state actors.” Nonetheless, most institutions of higher education endorse some notion of academic freedom, which applies as a result of contractual arrangements, bargaining agreements, or historical understandings.

The American Association of University Professors is the organization most engaged in exploring and elaborating on the meaning and application of academic freedom rights in this country, and has published a series of position papers and other statements over the years applying the principles in various contexts.

Within both public and private institutions, there is uncertainty and debate over whether the right to academic freedom is a right enjoyed by faculty, students, the institution itself, or some combination of the above. Depending on circumstances, all participants in the academic community may claim rights, and their claims are sometimes inconsistent with one another. For example, some organizations assert that students have rights of academic freedom that, if accepted, conflict with the academic freedom rights of faculty. In still other situations, courts have concluded that academic freedom rights belong to the institution, not the individual. Even when the right clearly exists, its reach and scope can be the subject of debate. For example, academic freedom does not convey unfettered license on faculty, who are still required to present necessary course content as determined by the academic institution that employ him/her. Controversies often arise over controversial statements by faculty members outside the classroom setting, and by unorthodox teaching. In recent years, efforts to achieve “civility” on college campuses has resulted in so-called speech codes, that may infringe both academic freedom and free speech.