Armstrong Bill for Academic Freedom Passes in Pennsylvania · 05 July 2005

By Bill Toland, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau--07/06/05

HARRISBURG -- Hoping to root out political intolerance at Pennsylvania's college campuses, the state House of Representatives is forming a committee to investigate claims among some college students that professors gave them unfair grades because of differing political ideologies.

But critics of proposals like these say political conservatives, emboldened by election successes over the past decade, are making a thinly veiled charge at the last bastion of liberalism -- college campuses -- armed with flimsy evidence and in search of a problem that doesn't really exist.

Rep. Gibson Armstrong, R-Lancaster, says he's collected about 50 examples of "intolerance" from college students. Armstrong's proposal, which parrots others made in legislatures across the country, is based on the concern among Republicans that conservative students are at worst graded unfairly, or at the very least feel intimidated because their views don't match those of their liberal professors.

The resolution was approved last night by the House, 108-90, after the House voted to end debate on the subject, even though several representatives remained in the speaking queue. By that point, debate on the resolution had consumed parts of two days, with the House interrupting debate Monday night, Independence Day, so everyone could go watch the fireworks.

Gibson, in explaining the proposal, said that he hopes to guarantee "free speech and tolerance" at the colleges that are owned or partly owned by the state. The resolution, which does not need the governor's signature, says that "students and faculty should be protected from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy," and students should be "graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views."

The investigative committee, composed primarily of the House's higher education subcommittee, plus two appointees, would explore whatever problems exist and then determine if corrective legislation is necessary.

The movement to temper the liberal stronghold on college campuses germinated quickly. So far this calendar year, more than a dozen state legislatures have considered bills that would either restrict professors, or set up a committee or grievance process that would explore the allegations of unfair treatment.

None of the proposals has passed into law, and wherever they have been advanced, they've created controversy among lawmakers, students and especially university professors. Pennsylvania's version has been percolating since April, and has already drawn opposition from teachers groups, like the American Association of University Professors.

One of the driving forces behind the movement is the Students for Academic Freedom, a Washington-based group founded by activist David Horowitz. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he said the past six months have been a "watershed in the academic-freedom movement" and hopes the movement to monitor teachers for bias will eventually trickle down to public elementary and high schools.

Students for Academic Freedom says its goal is to "end the political abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge." The group plans to distribute a book called "Unpatriotic University," which tells readers that colleges are full of "anti-American rhetoric, and [shut out] conservative points of view both in classrooms and on speakers' platforms."

Much of the Pennsylvania bill was borrowed from the Horowitz group's "academic bill of rights."

Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, referred to the Horowitz group and said the resolution is just "an attempt to respond to a national movement. ... We're just trying to fall in line."

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(Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.)