Bill Aims to Defend Students' Viewpoint · 29 January 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Matthew Benson--The Daily Coloradoan, 01/30/04

About the Bill:

The bill would establish the following rights for students enrolled in Colorado public institutions of higher education:

A right to expect their academic freedom will not be infringed by instructors who create a hostile environment toward their political or religious beliefs, or who introduce controversial matter into the classroom or course work that is substantially unrelated to the subject of study.

A right to expect they will 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.

A right to expect that their academic institutions shall distribute student fee funds on a viewpoint-neutral basis and shall maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to substantive political or religious disagreements, differences and opinions.

A right to be fully informed of their institution's grievance procedures for violations of academic freedom by means of notices prominently displayed in course catalogs or student handbooks and on the institutional Web site.

DENVER -- The state would step into the college classroom under a measure designed to protect students from being bullied or discriminated against because of their political or religious views.
The measure, prepared Thursday for introduction to the Legislature, amounts to a bill of rights for students. Supporters say it's needed because conservatives have felt shunned in the primarily liberal atmosphere of Colorado's college campuses.

The bill drew a firestorm of interest and speculation even before it was made public, and opponents say it would essentially create a new protected class for conservative students.

Bill sponsor Rep. Shawn Mitchell, a Broomfield Republican, attempted to blunt such criticism Thursday. He said the measure is meant to combat "an environment that is not conducive to full and fair debate for everyone."

"It is not a protection for conservative views. It is not a protection for liberal views. It is a level playing field for everyone," Mitchell said of the bill.

Fort Collins Democratic Rep. Angie Paccione countered that most universities have policies against discrimination, and said the issue should continue to be handled school by school.

The bill also could have a chilling effect by intimidating professors, she said.

"While we're trying to preserve academic freedom for students, we're actually hurting academic freedom for professors," said Paccione, who was involved in the drafting of the bill but stands in opposition.

She questioned what business the state has in telling university professors how to teach, especially in light of the massive reductions in state funding schools have endured in the past two years.

"We have a climate that is so anti-higher ed and this (bill) helps to perpetuate that," Paccione said.

Students at Colorado State University have mixed opinions on the proposal.

Brian Hardouin, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, likened it to a "witch hunt" against faculty members. Another student said students should have access to a grievance procedure if they feel they are being discriminated against because of their views.

Hardouin said the proposed academic bill of rights could discourage faculty from teaching their curriculums and pit a student's word against that of a faculty member.

"I'm not convinced right now there's an unbiased way to monitor that," he said.

Ryan Miccio, a junior majoring in political science and director of legislative affairs for Associated Students of CSU, said students should be engaged in the issue because it is going to affect them. He said ASCSU will gauge student opinion more before taking an official stance, but he personally opposes the legislation.

It's part of the nature of higher education to discuss controversial subjects in college classrooms, Miccio said, especially in political science classes and during an election year when it's on the minds of students and faculty. He added faculty should strive to create an environment conducive to frank discussions between all sides of an issue.

"I don't feel this (legislation) is necessary for higher education right now," Miccio said. "I don't want it to discourage potential faculty from coming to Colorado."

Robert Lee, a senior majoring in political science and state vice chairman for College Republicans, said he views the legislation as simply requiring that language about ideological diversity be included in student grievance policies.

"I don't see how it could hurt the university," Lee said. "Time will tell to what extent it'll help academic freedom on campuses. At the very least, it will empower students. They'll know the university has a grievance policy to protect students' rights when they feel discriminated against or intimidated."

The political atmosphere on the state's college campuses arose as a hot topic months ago when California conservative David Horowitz pushed a plan to boost conservative representation at U.S. universities and protect Republicans and conservatives on campus from retaliation.

Mitchell's measure would establish four main principles for classroom conduct and it would be up to each school to enforce those principles. "This has nothing to do with protecting any particular viewpoint," Mitchell said. "It is about a very small minority of professors that use their bully pulpit to bully students."

Rep. Jim Welker, a Loveland Republican, agreed the measure is needed to ensure all students are treated equally in the classroom. Conservative students often don't get far when they complain to their university, he said, but state action could get the attention of universities.

The bill doesn't provide for a penalty for offending professors, and complaints would still go through the university process. Despite the lack of "teeth," Welker said the discussion fostered by the proposal should raise awareness of the issue.

"Just talking about something might help," he said. "It won't hurt."

Coloradoan staff writer Rahaf Kalaaji contributed to this report.