Campus Speech Law Might Not Fly · 01 February 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

I read your column in today's Post. Don't you think Rep. Paccione's statement would be more credible if she were pressing the Colorado State System to adopt the bill of rights itself? Then there would be no need for legislation and we wouldn't press for any ourselves. You are dead wrong that the protections already exist and you can prove this to yourself by comparing the points in our bill of rights to the protections that the University of Colorado and the Colorado State system provide. We've done this and I would be happy to send you our comparison, but you should probably do the homework yourself before making such claims.

David Horowitz

Campus Speech Law Might Not Fly

By Jim Spencer--Denver Post, 02/01/04

It will be interesting to see how many Democrats vote for Republican Rep. Shawn Mitchell's academic bill of rights.

It will be more interesting to see just how effective a state law to protect right-wing political and religious views in higher education can be.

The students behind this push don't just want their say; they want their way.

Mitchell's bill appears to be the first of its kind in the country. The Broomfield representative maintains it is neither liberal nor conservative and "not heavy-handed enforcement or micromanagement" by the legislature.

But Colorado's GOP-dominated General Assembly can impose conservative political correctness on the state's public colleges and universities by partisan legislative fiat. And Democratic support for this bill appears slim to none.

Even Rep. Angie Paccione, a Democrat who helped Mitchell with the language of the bill in hopes of keeping it "innocuous," won't vote for it.

"I've been a university professor at Colorado State University for eight years," she said. "I know professors don't make it a habit to harangue students around political ideology."

The legislature "is not the place to address this," Paccione said. "It creates a climate where you can't recruit professors."

Mitchell says part of his motivation for introducing the bill came from stories his conservative interns told him. One, a straight-A student, complained of being graded down for expressing conservative viewpoints in political science class. Another said she was asked not to express her opinion on abortion because it wasn't consistent with the rest of the class.

Those things should not have happened. Procedures already exist to address them. So publicize them. Put a link on the home page of every public institution of higher education in Colorado.

But a statute that forbids the introduction of "controversial matter into the classroom or course work" begs for campus witch hunts by thin-skinned students, kids who didn't study and conniving political operatives.

Mitchell believes he headed off such classroom chaos by defining controversy as discussions or assignments that are "substantially unrelated to the subject of study."

The example he gave when I asked was a biology professor who lambastes George Bush's invasion of Iraq.

That's a no-brainer. It's also as far off-point as U.S. intelligence reports on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Few, if any, hard-science students claim professorial bias. The majority of complaints come from students in the social sciences, specifically government and political science.

What many of these folks take for discrimination is the fact that their points of view don't seem to hold the same weight as their professor's.

At public hearings on this matter, you find aggrieved undergraduates insisting on an impossible kind of equity with scholars who have studied their subjects for years and are often recognized experts in their fields.

Mitchell says those experts have nothing to fear from his legislation. His bill contains no penalty.

"There will be no state enforcement, no court enforcement," he said. "It is important to foster open and vigorous debate, to challenge and be challenged."

Mitchell said he could think of no subject matter that should be off limits in social science classes.

"I'm not creating a protected class" of students, he insisted.

Mitchell said his whole mission is to make sure all opinions are heard. He said he wants to rein in only that small minority of professors who use their lecterns as bully pulpits.

That's a noble goal. Mitchell's law is obviously better than the legislature's other initiative in behalf of oppressed conservative students. The other initiative - a joint House-Senate resolution, which Mitchell said he'll probably vote for - protects, among other things, the rights of students to criticize other students' sexual behavior. It also calls mandatory diversity training unconstitutional.

Americans have historically been willing to fight to the death to defend the right of other Americans to disagree with them. The slippery slope here is what students expect once they express their disagreement.

Part of Mitchell's bill says student fees must be distributed on a "viewpoint-neutral" basis. Does that mean an equal number of conservative and liberal speakers on campus? Mitchell says no. But that's sure what it sounds like.

Part of the law says that students should be graded "solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects they study" and that "they shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political or religious beliefs."

Colleges and universities already ask professors to justify the grades they give.

If this bill becomes law, what happens when you teach geology and a student who believes God created the Earth in seven days a few thousand years ago answers his exam accordingly?

Or what if you teach history and a student believes the Holocaust never happened?

Of course, most of it will be more subtle - the New Deal versus Reaganomics, the Great Society versus welfare reform, national debt versus balanced budgets, the U.N. versus the U.S.

The list is endless.

So is the potential for disrupting the teaching process.

Can you teach in an education class that Republican budget cuts to higher education have put the solvency of some schools at risk?

Would a math problem that asks students to compute tax relief for the rich and compare it to tax relief for the poor constitute controversial matter "substantially unrelated to the subject of study?"

Most important, will disagreeing with a student about anything based on your scholarly expertise expose you to investigation?

Mitchell says no. He says it will take repeated bad behavior to create what is legally described as a "hostile environment" for political or religious beliefs.

"Our age is entirely too responsive to hurt feelings," he said.

This bill, the representative promised, won't be a remedy for students who want their way as well as their say.

Given the complaints that gave rise to his bill, it will almost surely be mistaken for one.