What's Really Behind the 'Student Bill of Rights'? · 15 June 2005

What's Really Behind the 'Student Bill of Rights'?

By David Bacon--Pacific News Service--06/10/05

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- An older generation of teachers may remember the days of loyalty oaths and red scares. During the McCarthyite early 1950s, educators accused of being Communists or harboring leftwing views were driven from the state's school system. Today, witch-hunts seem once again on the rise.

The latest attempt to return to the time of red-baiting is called -- ironically -- the "Student Bill of Rights." Despite its fine, democratic ring, the phrase is being used to restrict teachers from introducing controversial or provocative ideas into their classrooms.

The argument goes like this: Conservative students are offended when "liberal" faculty try to force them to consider ideas they don't agree with. Political science or sociology instructors, for instance, who support the benefits of living-wage laws for workers, should be stopped from advancing such liberal biases in class.

This may sound far-fetched, but 13 states already have introduced bills that would ban such liberal "indoctrination." These bills, a project of ultraconservative ideologue David Horowitz, aren't aimed at the many prestigious business schools where students aren't only taught that making profit is necessary and virtuous, but also that they should learn to do so as efficiently as possible. Instead, the bills are aimed at teachers who question such established ideas.

This spring in Santa Rosa, conservative students backing the state's own version of the Student Bill of Rights showed where their effort is headed.

On February 25, leaflets quoting Section 51530 of the Education Code were posted on the doors of ten faculty members at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Quoting the code, the leaflet says: "No teacher ... shall advocate or teach communism with the intent to indoctrinate, inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism." Such "advocacy," the code says, means teaching "for the purpose of undermining patriotism for, and the belief in, the government of the United States and of this state." Fifty years ago, when leftwing teachers were hounded out of the state's schools at the height of the Cold War, this code section was rushed through the legislature to make the purges legal.

A later press release by the Santa Rosa Junior College Republicans claimed responsibility for the leaflets: "We did this because we believe certain instructors at SRJC are in violation of California state law." The same day, a news release titled "Operation 'Red Scare'" ran on the California College Republicans' website, saying the leaflets targeted "10 troublesome professors." The group's chair, Michael Davidson, told blogger John Gorenfeld, "A lot of the college professors are leftovers from the Seventies -- and Communist sympathizers."

Writing to the campus newspaper the Oak Leaf, Molly McPherson, SRJC College Republicans president, explained that "The instructors I 'targeted' were not selected at random ... There have even been accounts of JC teachers openly advocating Communist and Marxist theories ... [which have] been outlawed in the classrooms of a country with the strongest free speech rights in the world."

When the campus Republicans couldn't document the massive teaching of Communism at the junior college, they retreated to general complaints of "leftist bias" by faculty members. Evidence to support charges of biased teaching seemed just as scarce. In a forum on the controversy, student trustee Nick Caston pointed out, "I have been on the Board of Review (the last step of the grievance process) for three years and have never heard a complaint about bias in the class room."

"I've never even talked with any of the students who were involved in this," says red-tagged professor Marty Bennett. "But I do teach a lot of labor history in my social sciences classes, and I'm identified in the community as someone involved in the labor movement. That's probably why I was chosen."

Other instructors also had had little or no contact with the young Republicans. Bennett says that because of the incident "some teachers were reluctant to take up more controversial subjects. But it pushed others towards an activism they might not have considered before."

McPherson says the leaflet was "just in time for one of our senators introducing the academic bill of rights in April." That bill, SB5, pushed by Sen. Bill Morrow, R-San Juan Capistrano, said, "faculty shall not use their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination."

Horowitz's website charges that "all too frequently, professors behave as political advocates in the classroom, express opinions in a partisan manner on controversial issues irrelevant to the academic subject." At a time when Governor Schwarzenegger has gone to war with the state's teachers, Horowitz's admonitions would silence protest against him.

SB5 failed to pass the Senate Education Committee on April 20. McPherson and her club mates also fared poorly in late April student body elections -- the slate they backed lost by a 2-1 majority.

Nevertheless, bills similar to Morrow's have been introduced in 13 other states this year. Defending one in the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio state senator Larry Mumper warned that "card-carrying Communists," are teaching at universities. He defined them as "people who try to over-regulate and try to bring in a lot of issues we don't agree with."

So what about the free market of ideas?

PNS Associate Editor David Bacon (dbacon@igc.org), a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is "The Children of NAFTA" (University of California Press, 2004).

Response from Sara Dogan:

Sara Dogan on Jun 14, 2005 16:38:00, said:

David Bacon's recent article (What's really behind the 'Student Bill of Rights'?, 06/10) falsely represents the Academic Bill of Rights promoted by our organization as "the latest attempt to return to the time of red-baiting" and states that it would "restrict teachers from introducing controversial or provocative ideas in their classrooms." This is the opposite of the truth.

Our bill and campaign are viewpoint neutral and protect all faculty's political views, left and right: "No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs."

Far from restricting the teaching of all provocative ideas, the California version of the Academic Bill of Rights introduced by Senator Morrow echoes the decades-old provision of the American Association of University Professors which holds that "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to the subject." It's the "no relation to the subject matter" aspect of this principle that protects students from unwarranted introductions of political agendas into the classroom. There is nothing in the bill or our campaign that would ban any speech, controversial or otherwise, that is appropriate to the subject.

Bacon also unfairly conflates the Academic Bill of Rights with a separate effort by students at Santa Rosa Junior College to publicize existing anti-Communist statutes in the California Education Code, which these students have attested were not meant as an endorsement of such policies but rather as a means to start a discussion about the nature and importance of academic freedom. In any case, these students were acting on their own and without support or endorsement by Students for Academic Freedom. A retraction of your reporter's errors and egregious misrepresentations of our campaign would be appreciated.


Sara Dogan
National Campus Director
Students for Academic Freedom