Academic freedom legislation could tie professor's tongues, and student rights, opponents argue

A sweep of legislation from Arizona to Massachusetts aims to reshape the principles of academic freedom, which some say could limit free expression on campus.

Since 2005, 28 states have introduced so-called “academic freedom” bills based on a broad spectrum of concerns, from assessing “intellectual diversity” on campus to restricting public university professors from grading based on personal opinions and expressing opinions in class without presenting alternative positions. Among those states, bills in only four state legislatures — Arizona, Missouri, Montana and South Dakota — have made it past committees before being voted down.

Opponents of the legislation say that creating an environment that monitors free expression would discourage professors from sharing their true opinions with the student media. They also contend that the bills are unnecessary and safeguards already are in place at colleges and universities.

Megan Fitzgerald, program director of the Center for Campus Free Speech, an organization that promotes free student expression, said the bills are aimed to limit professors’ sharing personal opinions in class, which in turn would limit student expression.

“Most of the bills don’t directly deal with student expression, but they certainly deal with what students learn,” Fitzgerald said.

Although none of the bills proposed have passed, lawmakers have continued to introduce academic freedom legislation, with 11 new bills introduced since January 2007. The bills’ opponents maintain that the bills would create more problems than solutions in the classroom.

Six of the 11 current academic freedom bills introduced in state legislatures this year are based on the “Academic Bill of Rights,” which was first published by conservative author David Horowitz in 2003.

Partially based on the 1915 General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the American Association of University Professors, which established protection for the academic pursuit of independent ideas, Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights would establish guidelines on how professors present material in classes.

“While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints,” according to the Academic Bill of Rights. “Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.”

Horwitz’s bill also states “no faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs,” which opponents say is unnecessary legislation because professors at universities are already protected from discrimination based on their opinions.

Craig Smith, spokesman for Free Exchange on Campus, an advocacy group against academic freedom legislation, said most of the legislation introduced regarding the Academic Bill of Rights came from Horowitz’s group and not state lawmakers.

“We want to make sure people get the facts about this, that they understand the bill is coming from a political organization outside their state — not faculty, not administrators, not students,” Smith said.

Horowitz’s critics charge that his Academic Bill of Rights would create a chilling effect on how professors present courses, rather than promote diverse opinions.

Nicole Berg, spokeswoman for the American Association of University Professors, said the bills’ language is misleading because “it would stifle debate rather than protect it.”

“When you read some of the language, it seems innocuous,” Berg said, but “what the bills would create is against what they are trying to protect.”

Smith said while conservative state legislators in Arizona, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Texas and West Virginia have pitched Academic Freedom legislation this year, “no states have passed any of these laws,” in 2007 or any other year.

“It’s just really nothing more than a political distraction,” Smith said.

In Arizona, lawmakers in 2006 voted down a bill based on the Academic Bill of Rights. But a new version of the bill that was introduced by Sen. Thayer Verschoor (R-Gilbert) in February 2007 would apply to state colleges and universities as well as the all grades in the state’s public schools — unlike any other bill based on the Horowitz language. Verschoor could not be reached for comment.

If the bill becomes law, instructors in Arizona state schools and institutions found advocating any social, political or cultural issue in class would be subject to a $500 fine and suspension or termination of employment, which is also unprecedented among academic freedom legislation.

Serena Unrein, executive director of the Arizona Students’ Association, said the bill “would restrict the free exchange of ideas on Arizona’s state campuses,” both in classes and with the student media.

“I think that faculty would self-censor themselves and avoid having conversations with students and avoid the media if they felt it could cost them their job or $500,” Unrein said.

Brad Shipp is the national field director for Students for Academic Freedom, an organization that supports legislation based on the Academic Bill of Rights.

“We are not telling the professor to not have an opinion. We’re not telling a professor to not express their opinion,” Shipp said. “What we’re simply asking is they don’t indoctrinate their students on one side of a controversial subject.”

Unrein said any bill that would impose requisites about opinions in classes would chill discussion among students and professors, even if proponents say it would do the opposite.

“In order to have a vibrant marketplace of ideas at universities, [students and professors] have to be able to freely exchange ideas and thoughts,” she said. “This bill would really restrict that from happening.”

But Shipp said he does not think that ensuring academic freedom at universities “is a legislator’s job.”

“The university systems need to do this on their own,” Shipp said. “We feel that the university system ought to take the academic freedom language, whatever academic language they want to use, and include students in it.”

Smith said states have voted down academic freedom legislation because it is not needed.

“When [state lawmakers] sit down and look at what’s going on in their institutions, they say we really don’t need to legislate this,” Smith said. “If there is a grievance, we feel like you already have [measures] in place and legislating is being very heavy-handed and redundant.”

While states have considered adopting Horowitz’s proposal, others are looking at policies that would examine and protect “intellectual diversity” at state universities.

With language adopted from the report Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action published by the Washington D.C-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the bills contain provisions that would recommend eliminating speech codes that restrict freedom of speech, creating student press freedom protections and prohibiting viewpoint discrimination while distributing student funds, among others.

But the bills based on the report also call for regular studies to assess intellectual diversity at state university campuses, which opponents say would create a similar environment as the one pitched by proponents of Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights.

“You can only have the marketplace of ideas that makes critical thinking and higher education possible when everyone in the classroom is able to bring up positions that are relevant, without the legislature clamping down on them,” Fitzgerald said.

But Charles Mitchell, spokesman for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that regular intellectual diversity studies conducted by the universities would not stifle free expression on college campuses.

“One of the best things that we think institutions can do is to just do a self-study,” Mitchell said. “There’s absolutely no reason to not ask students what they think about this every year.”

Lawmakers in Montana and Virginia have defeated intellectual diversity bills, but legislation is also being considered Georgia and Missouri, where the state’s house of representatives passed an intellectual diversity bill in April.

Similar to the legislation based on Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, the intellectual diversity bills include language that recommends barring political bias during the hiring and promoting of professors.

Mitchell said when an instructor advocates an opinion that is unrelated to a class, “that’s not professional behavior.”

“That’s not teaching, that’s not relevant, that’s not helpful, that’s not professional behavior,” Mitchell said.

Fitzgerald said that professors may present different opinions in order to stimulate debate in classes.

“Students generally want to be challenged, that’s how they learn and professors are professionals that deeply care about educating students,” she said.

Mitchell said that intellectual diversity legislation would not stifle free speech on campuses.

“We don’t want to see that problem and attempt to fix that problem and create a bunch of other problems,” Mitchell said.

But with the Academic Bill of Rights and intellectual diversity legislation, opponents say solutions are being proposed to problems that do not exist.

Unrein said greater problems exist in higher education today, such as high tuition rates.

“I think there are a lot of real problems in education, but we are talking about these issues that don’t seem to be an actual problem,” Unrein said.

Fitzgerald said if a state or university were to adopt restrictions proposed in the Academic Bill of Rights or intellectual diversity policies, the “long term impact would be a lower quality of higher education.”

“A free exchange of ideas is absolutely critical to education, inside and out,” she said. “The only way you get that free exchange of ideas is an environment without restrictions.”