Freedom or Freeze? · 29 January 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Peggy Lowe, Rocky Mountain News, 01/30/04

A measure described by its author as focusing on free speech rights for college students was criticized by students Thursday as a freeze on professors' rights.

Rep. Shawn Mitchell, a Broomfield Republican, has taken up the so-called academic freedom cause started last summer by Senate President John Andrews and other conservative Republicans.

Admitting that most of the ideas in his bill are already part of many schools' written guidelines, Mitchell said he wants to protect students in "an environment that is not open to full and fair debate for everyone."

Students shouldn't be subject to professors creating a "hostile environment" by, for instance, criticizing the U.S. Mideast policy during a biology course, he said.

"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.

The Colorado Student Association, a group that represents more than 180,000 students at 15 state schools, endorsed Mitchell's bill.

During a loud and rowdy news conference Thursday called by Mitchell to announce his plan, students stood to say that they already are feeling the effects of the conservatives' new cause.

Professors at Metro State College are placing statements on syllabuses, saying if students feel offended or disturbed by course content, they should speak up, said Lindsey Trout, a junior art student.

"They're feeling very defensive," Trout said of the professors. "They're feeling very vulnerable. These students who are attacking them have nothing to lose."

Mitchell denied knowing anything about David Horowitz, author and outspoken conservative from Los Angeles who met with state Republicans last summer about his group, Students for Academic Freedom.

Horowitz's Web site trains students to investigate professors' political affiliations and document alleged abuses of conservative students.

A flustered Mitchell finally cut off questions and left the packed room.

Rep. Angie Paccione, a Democrat from Fort Collins and an education professor at Colorado State University, said she supports the concepts in Mitchell's bill. A self-described born-again Christian, Paccione said she's also supportive of a philosophy that would treat religious students with respect.

But Paccione said she doesn't believe the problem is as pervasive as conservatives describe. She was on the committee organized by Andrews in December when conservative students testified that they often felt ridiculed or were given bad grades by liberal professors.

Paccione said none of those students ever filed a grievance or used the formal process when they were allegedly abused by professors.

And officials at CSU and the University of Colorado at Boulder have told her passage of such a bill would hurt recruitment efforts. "It creates a really bad climate for recruiting professors to campus," she said.

Another measure, sponsored by a group of House conservatives, also deals with academic freedom. The resolution calls for defense of students' First Amendment freedoms, an end to mandatory diversity training and "the right to speak disapprovingly against certain sexual behaviors."