Academic Bill's Effect Worries Educators · 09 September 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

Free speech feared at risk

By The Associated Press--09/10/04

DENVER -- Death threats against two college professors -- including one at Colorado State University -- accused of violating the state's "Academic Bill of Rights'' have educators worried the new policy has a "chilling effect'' on free speech.

But Republican lawmakers say continued reports of liberal professors harassing conservative students show more needs to be done to enforce the policy.

University presidents, including Colorado State University President Larry Penley, and students went Thursday before the Legislature's Joint Education Committee to report on efforts to enforce a compromise Academic Bill of Rights.

All state-funded colleges adopted the policy this year under pressure from Republican lawmakers.

Colorado State student Heather Schmidt, an Army veteran whose husband is serving in Iraq, said a sociology professor criticized President Reagan and drew a caricature of President Bush. She said when she complained, she was told to find another class.

Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said he called the professor involved in that complaint and was told that he had been forced out of the classroom by death threats.

"He said he sleeps with a shotgun under his bed,"' Gordon told the panel.

The professor did not return a phone message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

CSU officials declined comment on Gordon's statement until they could investigate further. Penley, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, CU President Elizabeth Hoffman and University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton told legislators they are enforcing the policy.

Professors at Metropolitan State College in Denver are concerned that some topics might be off-limits in the classroom, interim president Ray Kieft told lawmakers.

He cited discussions of stem-cell research, a lightning-rod issue for some Republicans who claim it amounts to abortion.

Kieft said death threats against a Metro State professor accused of violating the policy "sent a real chill across the campus."

Metro State political science professor Oneida Meranto said in March she was threatened after a student filed a complaint against her. The student had told lawmakers he asked to drop her class because Meranto was biased.

Meranto responded publicly that the student was failing, prompting the student to accuse her of violating his privacy rights.

School officials said the threats originated off campus. The FBI has said it was investigating.

Sen. John Andrews, R-Centennial, a committee member, pointed to three new complaints aired by students at Thursday's committee meeting as evidence that schools need to enforce the policy more strictly.

University of Colorado law student Mario Nicholas said a professor called him a Nazi after Nicholas complained when the professor told the class that "the 'R' in Republican stands for racist.'' The professor was chastised by the dean but not suspended.

Metro State student William Pierce said he filed a grievance after a professor accused him of spying on the class for Republicans intent on enforcing the new policy.

Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, said professors who violate the rules should be suspended.

"It seems to me you need to take swift action,'' she told the university presidents.

Colleges agreed to implement a stripped-down version of the policy after lawmakers killed a measure that would have required them to allow college students to file grievances against professors if they felt they were being harassed for their political or religious beliefs.

Last fall, conservative activist David Horowitz campaigned unsuccessfully in Colorado to make his version of the policy part of state law.

Critics charged Horowitz was attempting to get universities to hire more conservatives by establishing a quota system, a charge he denied.