Panel Debates Bill to Make Colleges Respect Students' Views · 05 April 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

By the Associated Press--04/06/05

TALLAHASSEE -- When Rep. Dennis Baxley was in college, he knew his anthropology professor wasn't interested in hearing his conservative viewpoint.

" I just slumped down in my seat and kept quiet, spit back what they wanted, ducked my head and got out of there," Baxley said.

But now Baxley chairs the Education Council in the state House and he's sponsoring a bill designed to save other conservatives from the same experience.

The legislation would create a "bill of rights" for students and prevent professors from lecturing off topic. It would also make some school policies -- including that students be graded soley on merit and that students' freedom of speech and other rights not be infringed on -- into state law.

Students who think their rights have been violated could file a grievance.

Supporters say it's based on long-held academic values. Critics, including the United Faculty of Florida and the American Association of University Professors, warn the proposal is an "attack on intellectual freedom" that will stifle professors.

During Tuesday's hearing, lawmakers heard from David Horowitz, a conservative activist promoting similar legislation in several states. Baxley, R-Ocala, filed his bill based on the model advocated by Horowitz.

Democrats questioned whether there was a need to do anything in Florida. Baxley said he found it "almost humorous" that anyone would suggest college campuses are not "bastions of leftist thought." Conservative students, he said, have to essentially go underground.

"That kind of intolerance is wrong," Baxley said.

The bill (HB 837) cleared the House Choice and Innovation Committee last month on a 6-2 vote and is scheduled for a vote by the Education Council next week. A companion bill (SB 2126) was filed in the Senate but has not yet been considered.

Earlier Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush said Baxley was right to start the discussion about free speech at universities and the need to respect minority views.

"Whether we need to pass a bill or not, I don't know if that's necessary," Bush said. "I think conservatives are in the minority at a lot of universities, and their speech is not given the same value that speech on the left is."

During Tuesday's hearing, a student at Florida State University told lawmakers that a mass e-mailing to college Republicans had produced several claims of professors discriminating against students who expressed contrary political views.

Matthew Farrar, a 19-year-old freshman from Panama City, said students reported being asked to drop classes and had had their grades reduced.

Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, told the lawmakers that professors have limited time to cover material but can handle political issues in a variety of ways.

"Professors need to have the freedom -- and know they have the freedom to do that without having to look over their shoulders," he said.

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