Bill Calls for Balance in Universities · 05 April 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

Some see it as invitation to lawsuits

By Diane Hirth--DEMOCRAT CAPITOL BUREAU--04/06/05

An "academic freedom" bill described by sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley as a counterweight to "bastions of liberal thought" in Florida universities is seen by others as an attack on free speech and an invitation to sue professors.

The measure (HB 837) deliberated by the House Education Council on Tuesday tromps into areas usually reserved for court opinions and university policy. It would give students the right to hear a range of opinions and to receive an education not infringed upon "by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter." While affirming professors' rights to discuss their field, it says "they should make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own."

It could cost universities and community colleges $4.2 million to hire attorneys to handle grievance procedures for potential academic-freedom violations, said the committee staff analysis.

"Do you really want to give students the ability to sue professors?" asked Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "If this wasn't dangerous, it would simply be silly."

Said Baxley, R-Ocala, a funeral director with a bachelor's degree in sociology/psychology from Florida State University: "I find it almost humorous we're pretending our universities are not bastions of liberal thought." He said, "I can't believe the garbage spewed at me for daring to question what goes on at universities we finance."

An appearance of filmmaker Michael Moore wielding an anti-President Bush message in Tallahassee on the eve of the November election was mentioned by Baxley and conservative author/commentator David Horowitz as evidence of FSU's unbalanced intellectual marketplace.

But Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said Moore's appearance, to her knowledge, was sponsored by FSU's student Democratic club, with Moore waiving his fee, and not university administration. Ausley wondered if Vice President Dick Cheney's FSU graduation speech last year fit Horowitz' standards, and asked, "Should they also have invited John Edwards?"

Said Horowitz: "The real idea is for you to give a kick in the pants to administrators to get their house in order." A campaigner on this cause in many states. Horowitz used examples like University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill who compared 9/11 victims to Nazis or the Harvard faculty "lynch mob" objecting to President Lawrence Summers' speculation on why few women are in the sciences.

But a public university can't discriminate against speakers based on viewpoint because of the right of free speech, said Steve Gey, a constitutional expert at the FSU College of Law. And courts have ruled "politicians have no authority to impose on public universities a mandate to teach things," he said.

One of the few legislators in academia is Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. This University of South Florida academic adviser says he hears complaints about access, not bias. "I would rather spend the money on adding professors and seats in the classroom, rather than attorneys and administrators to evaluate if we had someone from the right, someone from the left and someone from the middle," said Justice. "I don't know pragmatically how you would implement this. This seems to me to be the height of political correctness."