Conservative ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ Picks Up Steam
Urged on by conservative provocateur David Horowitz, lawmakers in several states are pushing legislation requiring unprecedented government oversight of teaching on college campuses.
In Florida last week, a key legislative committee approved the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” in an 8-2 vote. The decision came after the bill’s Republican sponsor inveighed against “leftist totalitarianism” among professors, which he said had led to conservative students losing their academic freedom.
If passed by the full legislature, the bill would potentially allow students in Florida to sue if they feel that a university is not providing “balanced exposure to significant theories and thoughtful viewpoints.” Another clause restricts the ability of professors to introduce “controversial material” into the classroom.
At least a dozen other states, as well as the U.S. Congress, have seen similar legislation introduced in recent months. The text of almost all these bills is based on language drawn up by Horowitz, an arch liberal-turned-conservative commentator; and in most cases it has been Republican legislators who have introduced the bills and provided the core of support. Democrats, meanwhile, have lined up with the academic community to argue that the Florida bill and others like it would limit the academic freedom of professors.
“What are we going to do?” asked Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, which has provided the most vocal opposition to the legislation. “Will every faculty member have a paid government monitor to make sure that they follow specific speech codes?”
The supporters of the bill dismiss such predictions and say that legislation is necessary because students have been denied their academic freedom by liberal professors who have overtly politicized the classroom.
“You have an ideologically monolithic academic environment,” said David French, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that focuses much of its efforts on exposing alleged liberal bias. French said that his organization has collected 185 complaints of political bias from students across the country over the last six months.
“The academic culture has thoroughly betrayed academic freedom, and now they have the gall to complain the bill would do the same,” French said.
Horowitz’s proposed legislation has yet to be adopted by any state. Georgia did pass a resolution recommending that state universities adopt the document. In Congress, the text was introduced as a resolution by Georgia congressman Jack Kingston in 2003, but has stalled since then.
Horowitz has been pushing the legislation for a number of years, but it has only been in recent months that the effort has picked up steam in several states — including Minnesota, Ohio and Rhode Island — amid a string of controversial campus incidents. The University of Colorado has been under pressure to fire professor Ward Churchill since it emerged that the teacher had compared victims of September 11, 2001, to Nazis and argued that they were responsible for the attacks. In New York, the Columbia University campus has been rocked by accusations that pro-Palestinian professors intimidated pro-Israel students.
Supporters of the legislation have been motivated in part by events at Columbia and at other campuses, where Jewish groups have charged that there is a persistent anti-Israel bias in teaching about the Middle East. Opponents of the Florida bill have said that, among other dangers, the measure could force professors to give a platform to Holocaust deniers. This fear, they said, springs from a clause in the Florida legislation that demands professors “make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own.”
In Florida, the only two Jewish members on the House Choice & Innovation Committee were the only committee members to vote against the bill. One of them, Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, expressed concern that Holocaust deniers might be provided with a forum. But Gelber told the Forward that in Florida, the main threat of the bill was that it could potentially allow “creationism into Florida’s public-school system.”
The bill’s Republican sponsor, Dennis Baxley, told a University of Florida student newspaper, “Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”
Horowitz, who has testified in front of numerous state legislatures on the subject, said that both Baxley and Gelber had not read the bill carefully enough. Horowitz said that theories of Holocaust deniers, and biblically based views like creationism, would not fall under what the bill calls “significant scholarly viewpoints.”
Horowitz’s carefully worded document does not at first suggest the amount of controversy that has reared up around it. It opens by declaring that “academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students.” Horowitz points out that he took much of the language directly from resolutions passed by the American Association of University Professors, including the most controversial clause that censures “instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom, or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study.”
The problem with Horowitz’s proposed legislation, according to the professors association’s Bowen, is that it would place enforcement in the hands of politicians and judges, rather that the scholarly community.
“We don’t think government should be in the classroom,” Bowen said.
Marc Stern, a constitutional lawyer with the American Jewish Congress, said that he believes university classrooms have become too politicized. But, he added, finding a governmental solution is “very hard to do and raises a whole set of academic problems, and First Amendment problems and enforcement problems.”
None of the bills under consideration specifies how the classroom rules would be enforced, but the legislative staff in Florida suggested that students would have the right to sue if the law were to be violated.
Critics of the bill have said it amounts to little more than an affirmative action program for conservative professors. Horowitz’s proposed language calls for hiring decisions to be made “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives,” though later the text states that no professor can be hired or fired “on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.”
Many of the bill’s supporters make it clear that they are interested in countering the wider issue of liberal professors assuming a dominant position on campus.
“The problem is that for 40 years, there’s been an increasing homogeneity of viewpoint,” said Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University of New York, who recently proposed that New York’s universities voluntarily adopt the Academic Bill of Rights. “We need to provide students with alternative scholarly views.”