Frequently Asked Questions about the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project

What is the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project?
The Academic Freedom Monitoring Project identifies, documents, and reports on allegations of attacks on higher education communities around the world. The project identifies six attack types: killings/violence/disappearances, wrongful imprisonment, wrongful prosecution, travel restriction, loss of position, and other severe or systemic attacks.

What is the purpose of the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project?
Attacks on higher education occur around the world, in stable and unstable countries, democracies and dictatorships alike. While these attacks differ in form and severity, they share a common motive: to silence the voices of scholars, students, and other higher education personnel. The Academic Freedom Monitoring Project seeks to deepen our understanding of these attacks; to track the phenomenon; to identify trends and hotspots; and ultimately, to generate advocacy for increased accountability and security.

Who is involved in the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project?
The monitoring project is driven by SAR secretariat staff and a network of volunteer researchers around the world, including SAR scholars, faculty in SAR’s network, and students participating in SAR’s Academic Freedom Legal Clinics.

What do volunteer researchers do and how do they get involved?
Volunteer researchers participate in a variety of ways including reporting incidents to the SAR email or social media, providing SAR with background or corroborating information on incidents, drafting incident reports for review by SAR prior to publication, and advising SAR on how to respond to particular attacks once reported. Volunteer researchers include legal and human rights experts with strong knowledge of relevant legal and socio-political issues, including individuals who may have personally faced attacks. While expertise in relevant subject matter areas is valuable, it is not required: SAR welcomes scholars who are simply interested in supporting academic freedom, regardless of their academic discipline.

Academics and students interested in the project may get involved directly, or by connecting through their institutions’ SAR primary representative (if the institution is a network member). If you are interested in joining the project, please send an email to with your resume and area of expertise.

How are incidents identified and reported?
SAR staff and partners around the world who work on the monitoring project identify incidents based on trusted news sources, human rights reports, and communications from partner organizations and colleagues. SAR assesses reported incidents according to the project methodology to determine whether they are appropriate for publication. SAR staff conduct research to verify the alleged attack through credible news sources, social media, and/or volunteer researchers. SAR staff or volunteer researchers draft the incident report, which generally includes a chronology of events followed by a paragraph explaining how the attack has a chilling effect on academic freedom. SAR staff review and edit draft reports prior to publication to the public index. SAR circulates published incidents to its network through the Advocacy Insider e-bulletin (sign up here), Twitter, and Facebook. Monitoring project data forms the backbone of key SAR advocacy products such as the annual Free to Think report, country reports like Obstacles to Excellence: Academic Freedom & China’s Quest for World-Class Universities, and submissions to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process. SAR also shares reports and data with human rights organizations, states, and interstate organizations.

What is academic freedom?
While the term “academic freedom” is not explicitly listed in the major international human rights treaties, academic freedom is independently and interdependently derived from the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to education, as articulated in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), respectively. The major elements of academic freedom are perhaps best elaborated in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, which defines it as scholars’

“…right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.”

UNESCO’s articulation of academic freedom serves as a useful reference, even as it does not attempt to delimit all forms of protected content or conduct. Attempts to more narrowly define academic freedom (e.g. dismissing a scholar’s engagement with the popular media or written expression outside academic publications as unprotected) inevitably dismiss important and legitimate forms of and venues for academic activity, and shrink the space for expression and inquiry. (For more on the definition of academic freedom, review SAR’s Promoting Higher Education Values guide.)

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) has also commented on the right to academic freedom, stating that “[m]embers 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” (ESCR Committee, General Comment 13: The Right to Education, E/C.12/1999/10, 1999).

Who has a right to academic freedom?
Scholars, researchers, lecturers, and college and university students all have a right to academic freedom, which they exercise every time they conduct research, write a paper, give a lecture, or engage in dialogue in the classroom. Others who are not necessarily academics — such as members of think tanks, non-governmental organizations, and individuals engaging in on-campus dialogue — may also have a right to academic freedom.

All members of society have a stake in academic freedom. Universities are places where ideas are developed, scientific advancements are made, and national and international progress is achieved. Without a free, open university space, society’s ability to move forward is limited. Therefore, everyone has an interest in academic freedom and should work to protect it.

Does the law protect academic freedom?
As noted above, legal claims to academic freedom may be grounded in the major international human rights treaties (independently and interdependently derived from the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, as articulated in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the right to education, as articulated in Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights), regional human rights systems (such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human & People’s Rights), and national constitutions and statutes, under which academic freedom may be explicitly protected or protected under related provisions relating to freedom of expression, freedom of research, the right to the benefit of scientific progress, or similar rights.

Does the Monitoring Project include incidents about primary and secondary students as well?
Scholars at Risk’s mandate, and therefore the Monitoring Project, is focused on the higher education space. SAR is a member organization of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, which includes reporting on attacks on primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels, and conducts advocacy aimed at strengthening protections for education institutions at all levels.

Why does the Monitoring Project report on incidents that happen off-campus, like student protests?
Students, scholars, and other members of the higher education community are frequently targeted and subjected to attacks off-campus for conduct protected by academic freedom or freedom of expression. Such attacks can have a profound direct and indirect effect on the exercise of academic freedom by targeted individuals and others, and therefore warrant inclusion in the project.

Does the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project report every attack on higher education?
Given resource limitations, the Monitoring Project captures only a small sample of all attacks on higher education communities. Often, information on attacks is not shared through public and even private channels due to the risk of retaliation against victims and individuals aware of the attack. Language barriers may also limit SAR’s reporting, when news sources are in a language that is not yet supported by monitoring project staff or volunteers. (SAR invites individuals with language skills other than English to inquire about volunteering with the monitoring project.) The Monitoring Project was founded in April 2013; incidents that occurred prior to this date are not included.

From among all incidents reported to SAR, the Monitoring Project generally only reports publicly on those incidents which SAR staff can verify with at least two credible sources. Where SAR learns of an incident but cannot verify the information with at least two credible sources, SAR will not publish the report but may continue to continue to track the incident internally until such time as it is verified. In rare circumstances, SAR will refrain from or delay publishing a verified incident report if SAR determines that publication creates or increases the potential for further harm, or where a victim indicates a reasonable concern that publication poses a risk to themselves or their families.

Does SAR issue corrections?
SAR uses its best efforts to corroborate incident reports prior to publication. If SAR receives or discovers contrary or clarifying information after publication, SAR will review the information to determine whether a correction is warranted. If a material correction is warranted, SAR will update the original report with a correction notice. If SAR’s review of a previously published incident determines that the incident would not appropriately qualify under SAR’s reporting standards or the scope of the project, SAR will retract the incident from the monitoring index and archive it with an explanatory note. (Archived incidents may be found here).