GOP Students Want Bill of Rights · 30 March 2005

Filed under: Maine, Press Coverage

By Justin Ellis--Portland Press Herald--03/31/05

AUGUSTA - College-age Republicans told lawmakers Wednesday that Maine needs a law to make sure divergent political viewpoints are welcome on the campuses of the state's colleges and universities. Supporters of the bill - An Act to Create an Academic Bill of Rights - said such a document would free students and faculty at state-funded schools to express their political or philosophical views without fear of retaliation.

The legislation, which is being considered by the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, reflects a belief among political and social conservatives around the country that their views are neglected in classroom and campus discussions. Similar legislation has been proposed in other states in recent years.

"I am here today with my fellow College Republicans because I feel you must be made aware of a scary trend occurring on all Maine campuses," said Mia Dow, a member of the College Republicans at the University of Maine, Orono. "I have been taunted, sworn at and humiliated beyond the realm of imagination, and I am sick of this treatment," she said.

Testimony continued late into the evening as legislators, professors and other young Republicans from campuses around the state spoke in favor of the bill. The committee is expected to discuss the bill in a workshop before voting on it.

Opponents said such a bill could stifle discussion on controversial topics.

Allen Berger, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of Maine at Farmington, said requiring faculty to abide by "definitions imposed by outsiders and possibly measured by political standards that diverge from academic criteria would be to severely constrain their academic freedom."

But Jon Reisman, professor at the University of Maine at Machias, supported the bill. Colleges around the state have made strides in the last decade to combat discrimination in areas of gender and ethnicity, he said, but intellectual diversity is now at risk.

"We don't have intellectual pluralism on our campuses today and the research shows it," he said.

Students feel they face the possibility of bad grades if their political or religious views differ with that of a teacher, said Melissa Simones, a junior at Bates College in Lewiston.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Stephen Bowen, R-Rockport, said the goal of any university is to expose students to a variety of experiences and ideas.

The bill of rights would require universities to establish procedures for hearing complaints of discrimination based on a person's political and social beliefs. It also would prohibit colleges from considering such beliefs in hiring or firing of faculty.

One committee member, Rep. Connie Goldman, D-Cape Elizabeth, said hiring and firing decisions are not always that clear-cut. "How much of this is plain out bad teaching and how much is a personal bias," she said.

Richard Thompson, speaking for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said states such as Georgia and Florida have also considered free speech legislation backed by national conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Students for Academic Freedom.

"I find it ironic when we have a Republican president and Republican Congress, Republicans are bringing forward legislation telling us they are in a minority being discriminated against," he said.

Others who spoke against the proposed legislation said many of the protections in the bill are already available to students and faculty.

Derek Langhauser, attorney for the Maine Community College System, said the U.S. Constitution and Maine Constitution provide the right to expression, assembly and religion. He said faculty have the added protection of the Maine Education Association's collective bargaining agreement.

The issue of academic freedom surfaced recently at Columbia University in New York, where Jewish students say they felt intimidated by professors of Middle East studies.

Last year a staff member at Bates College in Lewiston was reprimanded after an e-mail he wrote was circulated in which he referred to the College Republicans as "a bunch of thugs."

In 2002, a University of Southern Maine professor caused an uproar after being accused of making racist and homophobic remarks in a video lecture series.

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at:

jellis@pressherald.com