Bill Aims to Curb Profs' Classroom Politicizing · 28 January 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage


By Julia C. Martinez--Denver Post, 01/27/04

A proposed new law would promise state college students classrooms free of instructors who introduce controversial topics that are not related to the content of a course.

Under an academic bill of rights expected to be introduced at the Capitol on Wednesday, students also would have the right to be graded for their classes based on "reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects" rather than political beliefs. They would have a right to be free of a "hostile environment" created by professors.

And they would have the right to expect that their student fees would be restricted to "viewpoint neutral" programs, according to a draft of the measure, sponsored by Rep. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield.

"This bill provides a level playing field and says that no one should be discriminated against because of the political content of their speech," Mitchell said.


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The proposed academic bill of rights is aimed at protecting conservative students who say they are targets of harassment and discrimination by left-leaning faculty because of their political beliefs.

Student leaders at the University of Colorado at Boulder reacted with fear.

"This whole bill is scary to me," said Sergio Gonzales, one of three student body leaders. "We're really talking about overinvolvement of the state legislature in higher education."

Gonzales said the measure could affect what is taught in the classroom and the type of outside speakers invited to address students.

"Having the legislature say that controversial material not covered in the course syllabus should not be introduced is extremely dangerous. Higher education is meant to expand people's minds and challenge their ways of thinking," Gonzales said. "This isn't K-12. We're talking about adults who go to college who should be talking about controversial topics. Besides, who is to decide what is controversial?"

Ryan Miccio, head of legislative affairs for the Associated Students of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, declined to comment on specifics of the bill, since he had not seen it. But said he is worried.

"I would be concerned about any legislation that could potentially alter university curriculum, and it sounds like this could," Miccio said.

But Ryan McMaken, director of the Colorado Student Association, said his group supports the bill. The group represents six colleges, including Metropolitan State College and CU-Denver.

"I do believe the bill is meant to address a chemistry professor or physical science professor who might feel the need to pontificate on matters political. Most people would agree that's not appropriate," McMaken said.

The bill's sponsor said the measure is needed to make sure academic freedom and freedom of speech apply to everyone in the university community.

"It should be clear the bill has nothing to do with quotas or hiring or anything else about the way universities run themselves," Mitchell said. "It has to do only with respect and open dialogue in the classroom."

His bill requires that the list of student rights be posted on all government-funded campuses in Colorado.

The governing boards of all colleges and universities also would be required to adopt grievance procedures to ensure that student rights are enforced.

Senate President John Andrews, who has been at the forefront of the effort to ensure academic freedom on campuses for conservative students, said the measure would protect all students.

"My analogy ... is if you go into any workplace, the U.S. Labor Department has made the employer put up a poster that says 'Know Your Rights"' and discusses minimum wage, child labor and other rights, Andrews said. "Every employee in the workplace has got a big bold notification of what to do to reclaim their rights. I think this is missing for students."

Last year, Andrews, R-Centennial, asked state universities to submit their anti-discrimination policies to him for review and held an informal hearing to listen to student complaints.

Earlier this month, 14 conservative lawmakers introduced a resolution calling for the defense of students' First Amendment rights, including expression "based solely on viewpoint."

Andrews said Monday that he believes most campuses have good policies but that gaps remain.

"I think the Mitchell bill will make us stronger in some of the areas where the good written policies aren't translating fully into protection of everyone's academic freedom," Andrews said.

'ACADEMIC FREEDOM'

A draft bill, expected to be introduced in the General Assembly on Wednesday, outlines the rights that students enrolled in public institutions of higher education should have. Among them:

Students have a right to expect that 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.

Students have a right to expect that 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.

Students have 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.

Source: Draft bill on academic bill of rights in higher education