Voices

Free to agree

Academic freedom is more than acceptance of the campus party line. Many states are seeking to expand freedom

Issue: "Katrina: Unnatural disaster," Sept. 10, 2005

Universities give faculty members tenure and academic freedom, make students attend sensitivity seminars, and mandate multiculturalism in course syllabi-all in the name of the free exchange of ideas and supposedly to celebrate diversity. So why is nearly everyone in the university expected to think alike?

At the University of Northern Colorado, a criminology professor required his students to answer this question on the mid-term: "Explain why George Bush is a war criminal." When a student instead discussed why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal, she received an "F."

The typical institution of higher education today is one of the least diverse places in America. Among faculty members, 72 percent describe themselves as liberal, with only 15 percent conservative. And the academic left is increasingly imposing its beliefs on students with politically correct speech codes, classroom propaganda, and overt suppression of conservative ideas.

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Campus speech codes forbid criticizing homosexuality, conservative speakers on campus are routinely disrupted, and alternative student newspapers are stolen as campus administrators look the other way. Christian groups routinely suffer official harassment, including "nondiscrimination" policies requiring them to accept non-Christians as members.

Some people are working to bring true academic freedom back to the universities. Pennsylvania state representative Gibson Armstrong (R-Lancaster County) sponsored a bill to investigate whether or not bias exists on state campuses. The bill passed, and hearings will begin in the fall. Students with complaints can present them to the state Subcommittee on Higher Education and professors will have the opportunity to defend themselves.

And what if the subcommittee finds a problem? Mr. Armstrong said that he hoped the universities would take the necessary steps to enforce the academic freedom policies already on their books. But if not, the legislature might consider enacting some form of the Academic Bill of Rights.

This refers to the initiative of David Horowitz, a former campus radical turned conservative. He is urging universities and states to adopt a set of policies modeled after his Academic Bill of Rights. It forbids determining a faculty member's tenure or a student's grade on the basis of political or religious beliefs. Professors are encouraged to present both sides of controversial issues. Everyone's freedom of speech and academic freedom are to be respected.

The Academic Bill of Rights has been written into law in Georgia. In Colorado, after it passed a House committee, the presidents of the state's universities agreed to implement its provisions voluntarily. The Academic Bill of Rights is being considered before eight other state legislatures (Missouri, Michigan, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, California, Utah, Washington, and Ohio). Students for Academic Freedom, a student advocacy group with 135 chapters on campuses throughout the country, plans to introduce the measure in all 50 states. It has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, as part of a resolution to end discrimination based on political or religious beliefs and to promote intellectual diversity on campuses.

Existing laws also give protection. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) fights campus speech codes and discrimination based on religion or politics, with the help of a network of pro bono lawyers who will take universities to court. But that is not always necessary, as a complaint from FIRE is often enough to prompt a university to change its policies.

Mr. Armstrong, the Pennsylvania legislator whom FIRE helped to draw up his bill, notes that the organization has a board precisely balanced between conservatives and liberals, including an activist who serves on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. "No one can accuse them of being a right-wing group," he says. "Our intent is not to politicize."

"Free speech is the birthright of all Americans," Mr. Armstrong said. "It's the framework within which honest debate occurs. One ideology should not be using free speech to punish another."

Especially on college campuses.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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