Organizations debate free speech in college classrooms

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In a battle over First Amendment protection on college campuses, some are asking if professors’ speech should be constrained to avoid advocacy of personal political beliefs in the classroom.

Students for Academic Freedom, a national student organization, is attempting to influence policy on college campuses nationwide by limiting what professors can say in the classroom setting, said Sara Dogan, national campaign director for Students for the organization.

Dogan said her organization does not want to eliminate relevant discussions between professors and students, but wants to ensure that other views with scholarly merit are shared.

“If, for example, you were discussing economics in the Reagan years, you’d be remiss if all you said was that it was a huge problem and it failed,” Dogan said.

There are many economists who believe that Reagan’s policies were successful, Dogan said.

“You don’t need to represent every topic out there, just significant ones on scholarly (subjects),” Dogan said.

She said S.A.F. receives a lot of complaints from students who are in classes where politics are not necessarily relevant, but still discussed.

“(A student will say), ‘My professor spent 20 minutes bashing President (George W.) Bush,'” Dogan said.

She said the majority of the complaints S.A.F. receives are from conservative students, but that the organization welcomes liberal students to file grievances as well.

Another concern the group seeks to address is a student’s right to disagree with a professor’s opinion.

“A professor can say, ‘This is my personal view,'” Dogan said. “‘You are free to disagree and I won’t punish you for it.’ But most professors won’t follow through (with respecting other viewpoints).”

The group, with its 150 chapters nationwide, is pushing an Academic Bill of Rights authored by conservative activist David Horowitz.

Since last year, the organization has sent letters to universities and has received limited feedback regarding their concerns. They have also sought to influence state legislatures.

“We’ve been thrilled by the response so far (by students and state legislatures),” Dogan said.

Dogan said the group has succeeded in enacting new legislation in Georgia, and that university presidents in Colorado signed a “memorandum of understanding.”

However, a bill similar in nature to the one proposed by Horowitz did not make it beyond committee in the California Legislature.

Ruth Flower, director of public policy and communications for the American Association of University Professors, called the actions by S.A.F. and the desire of the group to involve legislators in academic decision-making redundant and dangerous.

“The A.A.U.P. contends these rights already exist,” Flower said. “Our main problem with the (Academic) Bill of Rights is that it’s a legislative mandate, and that sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Flower noted that since 1967, there has been a “Student Rights and Freedoms” document created and amended by organizations that represent students, universities, deans and professors. In the classroom, the document states students have a “protection of freedom of expression,” as well as “protection against improper academic evaluation.”

Flower said the largely conservative group supporting legislative involvement in what has traditionally been an academic process is abandoning “classic conservatism’s” idea of less government, in the hope of supporting more conservative viewpoints on college campuses.

This approach could do conservative groups more harm than good, she said.

“Conservative Christian colleges would have to present the other side of what they believe on (issues like) homosexuality (and) abortion,” Flower said.

According to Flower, the majority of state legislatures have decided not to get involved in this issue.

“Horowitz is pulling away,” Flower said. “That’s probably wise. He has lost in 15 states.”

S.A.F. wants to create a process for students to file complaints if they feel they are unduly subjugated to a professor’s personal views unrelated to course material.

A.A.U.P. said such a process already exists.

“Every campus has a grievance mechanism,” Flower said. “A student has a right to a good education. There’s a process to complain.”

Flower said a lot is made of possible biases on college campuses, and that in most departments, professors’ professional ideologies are more important than their political ones.

“I don’t know that if a person is a Democrat, they’re going teach Jane Eyre (to an English class) in a different way,” Flower said.