Editor's note: read Sara Dogan's response to this article here. · 27 February 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

By Bill Cotterell | CAPITAL CURMUDGEON

Watching Florida government and politics is like seeing an endless, ever-changing movie. Just when you think "this is where I came in," some entertaining little plot fillip keeps you riveted.

When I came to Tallahassee in 1969, efforts were made to forbid groups like Students for a Democratic Society to use meeting rooms or sponsor speakers at state-supported colleges. Some even singled out SDS by name. Others would have required students and professors to sign oaths attesting that they did not favor overthrowing the government by subversion or violence - and no fair choosing one or the other.

"I'm not a complete fascist, but I believe in a little repression," said Rep. Don Reed, a Boca Raton Republican who was among the best in a mostly ignorable GOP minority back then.

Reed was poking fun at more rabid colleagues during a committee hearing on one of the ill-fated bills. But his sarcasm didn't come through in print, so the university community responded with reflexive horror.

Across the Capitol, Sens. Bob Haverfield of Miami and William Dean (Wig) Barrow of Crestview also crusaded against campus commies. Jack Lieberman, an FSU student known as "Radical Jack," became the focus of legislative angst for teaching a course on "How to Make a Revolution" in the Center for Participant Education program.

Along about 1972, Barrow even accepted Lieberman's invitation to attend his class and debate war and capitalism. The senator was doing all right with the students, too, until he remarked, "Can we move this conversation out on the lawn? Some of y'all don't have the same bathing habits as me."

Well, what goes around, as they say, comes around.

Now the Republicans run the Legislature. And perceived threats to academic freedom come from the left.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has introduced an "Academic Bill of Rights" aimed at giving conservative students legal footing to challenge liberal bigotry. The bill (HB 837) doesn't mention left or right, but devotes more than half of its seven pages on "where as" statements that no one could disagree with.

It says, in effect, that universities should welcome free debate and inquiry, that people should not be denied hiring or tenure because of religious or political beliefs and that a student shouldn't fear a grade knockdown for wearing a Bush-Cheney cap to class.

"Some of us need to wake up and realize we're being asked to finance a culture war," said Baxley. "And we feel like we're financing the wrong side."

He said he got the idea of his bill from conservative commentator David Horowitz, a recovered liberal who spends a lot of time on campuses - often being heckled and picketed by students and faculty members. Baxley said he has heard tales of conservative students or organizations being denied campus funds or facilities, tenure committees spurning instructors with strong religious beliefs and students being "assigned to write papers on why George W. Bush should be tried for war crimes."

"And I wasn't too delighted to have Michael Moore on campus to the tune of $50,000 in student fees" in Gainesville, Baxley added.

Stan Marshall, who was president of FSU in the Radical Jack vs. Wig days, said Wednesday, "I don't think there's any question that the prevailing thought on most campuses is liberal and Democratic, but that doesn't bother me." What does bother him is intimidation or retaliation, "which I don't think is too prevalent - but if it happens to one student, that's one too many."

Baxley's bill wouldn't let you get a tuition refund if a feminist professor gave you a D because you oppose abortion, nor could students demand equal time for left and right guest speakers. They couldn't even herd the faculty Senate through the streets in dunce caps, like Maoists did in China's Cultural Revolution - perhaps making members read aloud the writings of Chairman Lynne Cheney from her tenure as head of the National Institute of the Humanities.

Such improvements are available through amendments, once the session starts.

Baxley's "Bill of Rights" reads more like a resolution than a law. The only action it requires is that a copy of the bill be sent to presidents of every university and community college in the state.

This bill addresses symptoms, not causes. Liberal bias in academia, like the leftward tilt of the media, is partly the right wing's own fault. Conservatives quit the playing field 40 to 50 years ago, shamed by the excesses of Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and, in Florida, the infamous Charley Johns Committee.

So the left didn't overtake campuses, it inherited them.

Contact political editor Bill Cotterell at (850) 671-6545 or bcotterell@tallahassee.com.