Lawmaker Aims to Halt Bias in Class · 05 April 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

An academic freedom bill would give students the right to be graded without regard to politics.

By David Karp--St. Petersburg Times Staff--04/06/05

TALLAHASSEE - Conservative-minded students sit in silence because they are afraid to express their views.

Students get F's if they don't write that President Bush should be charged as a war criminal.

And professors are told to leave academia because their right-wing views are unacceptable.

These examples, according to state Rep. Dennis Baxley, are far too common on college campuses these days.

"If you think those things don't happen," Baxley said at hearing in the Florida House on Tuesday, "you are either very naive, or you haven't talked to the students or faculty who live through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle persecution every day."

To change that, Baxley, an Ocala Republican best known for backing a law to prolong Terri Schiavo's life, is pushing a bill that would give students and professors a list of rights to enforce when they find political discrimination on campus.

Baxley's academic freedom bill would give students the right to be graded without political bias and to have access to a "broad range of serious scholarly opinion" on any subject.

The bill would require student fees to be spent on a "viewpoint-neutral basis."

The bill has passed one education committee in the House, where Baxley is chairman of the education council, but it has not been taken up in the state Senate.

Senate President Tom Lee said last week he didn't know a lot about the bill, but he wasn't sure it was needed. Gov. Jeb Bush raised the same point Tuesday.

"I don't know if the bill itself is the correct solution," Bush said. "I do know that free speech goes both ways."

Bush agreed that conservatives' speech "is not given the same value as the speech on the left is."

Carolyn Roberts, chair of the board that oversees the university system, said Tuesday she would invite Baxley to speak about the issue before the Board of Governors.

A House staff analysis says the bill would open universities to scores of lawsuits. It could cost universities $4.2-million a year to hire lawyers.

Democrats questioned why the bill was even needed.

"I don't see this to be a real problem," said Tom Auxter, a UF philosophy professor who is head of the United Faculty of Florida.

Most universities already have policies and ombudsmen to deal with complaints like the ones Baxley raised.

Tuesday's main speaker at the hearing was David Horowitz, a 1960s leftist turned conservative activist. He recently met with Bush about it, Baxley said.

Horowitz cited scores of examples across the nation in which liberal professors had belittled conservative students. But Rep. Dan Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach, pressed Horowitz to cite examples in Florida.

Horowitz could name only one, and then he acknowledged he didn't know all the facts about it. He criticized the University of Florida for using student fees to pay for liberal activist Michael Moore to speak on campus during the presidential election last year.

UF spokesman Steve Orlando said the campus speaker bureau paid for Moore in response to high student demand. Fees also paid to bring President Bush's former spokesman Ari Fleischer and Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York to campus.

Later at a news conference, FSU junior Elle Lahesa, 23, said a history professor at Tallahassee Community College told the class that America deserved the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It happened in a Western civilization class the day after Sept. 11, 2001, she said.

When Lahesa, a former Marine dressed in uniform, objected, she said the professor told her, "You have no right to talk. You are just a baby killer."

Afterward, she said, students spat on her.

When she went to the dean's office, Lahesa said she was told the dean didn't have time to talk to her.

Monte Finkelstein, dean of the history and social sciences division at TCC, said he would be "shocked" if a professor made the comment.

TCC spokeswoman Alice Maxwell said she doubted a dean would have ignored Lahesa's complaint either.

"It really does not sound like something that would happen," Maxwell said.

Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Joni James contributed to this report.