Campus Bill of Rights Provokes Debate

Published October 1, 2006

The three-year-old Academic Bill of Rights (ABR) is an innocuous-looking document setting a basic definition of academic freedom–a mechanism for protecting university students and faculty from “the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious, or ideological nature.” It emphasizes students’ and faculty members’ free-speech rights and the value of intellectual diversity on college campuses.

But it is sparking debate about whether political bias is rife in university classrooms and, if so, who should respond to eliminate it.

Supporting Strongly

Malcolm Kline, executive director of Accuracy in Academia, a nonprofit research group that tracks and publicizes political bias in education, said “liberal groupthink” prevails in the academy, undermining the intellectual rigor that should pervade college campuses.

“Every month we fill a newsletter and two Web sites with examples of how [colleges] don’t uphold their end of the academic bargain,” Kline said.

In August, Kline reported that the University of Wisconsin-Superior refused to acknowledge a Christian student organization because it doesn’t allow non-Christians to serve in leadership positions.

Several university speech codes have been ruled unconstitutional by courts over the past few years, Kline said, because they work so hard at being politically correct that they actually infringe on students’ First Amendment rights.

Considering Bills

Over the past three years, 20 state legislatures have considered resolutions echoing the ABR’s language. That has prompted critics to contend the government should not intervene in college classrooms. None of the bills has been signed into law.

One of loudest critics of the ABR is the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s largest higher education union. At its biennial convention in Boston in July, the AFT passed a resolution opposing the ABR at federal, state, and university levels.

The resolution says, in part, that the AFT believes the legislation “would result in government intervention to ensure that more right-wing content is inserted into the college curriculum.” It also contends college professors “are constantly evaluated by their peers on the basis of the quality of their scholarship, teaching and service.”

Craig Smith, associate director of AFT Higher Education, said the group opposes government intervention in college and university classrooms.

“The limitations [the bill places] on faculty and students are inappropriate,” Smith said.

He called the document and any legislation it inspires “a vicious attack on higher education.”

Calling for Change

Sara Dogan, national campus director for Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), a coalition of campus watchdog groups founded by ABR author David Horowitz, said contrary to critics’ claims, her organization’s main goal is not to inspire legislation or government interference in classrooms.

“We view legislation as a last resort,” Dogan said. “We realize that any lasting change must come from the universities.”

She lauded the July decision by Temple University’s Board of Trustees to adopt a university-wide policy protecting students from ideological abuses in the classroom and publicizing a specific procedure for filing grievances if they believe their academic freedom has been violated.

Previously, the university published its policy on academic freedom only in the faculty handbook, Dogan said.

The university’s decision was made after the Pennsylvania legislature held hearings on academic freedom in the state earlier this year, at which Horowitz testified alongside professors and students from the state’s public universities.

Promoting Diversity

In March 2004 the Colorado university system voluntarily adopted a policy on academic freedom in exchange for state legislators withdrawing a formal but nonbinding resolution. In October 2005, the Ohio university system followed suit.

Smith called the SAF’s claims that the organization’s primary aim is not to inspire legislation “disingenuous.” He said state legislatures are hesitant to pass formal legislation that echoes the ABR because “it comes down to a moment when lawmakers say, ‘This is the business of an institution of higher ed.'”

Smith noted none of the 20 legislatures to consider formal legislation so far, even in politically conservative states, has passed it.

Dogan said SAF is simply working to help college students–liberal and conservative–understand the nature of academic freedom and know what they can do if their rights are violated.

“Our goal is to promote intellectual diversity in the classroom,” Dogan said.

Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.

For more information …

“Academic Bill of Rights,” Students for Academic Freedom,