Chilling Effects

David Horowitz tries to redefine "academic freedom"


The Republican firebrand David Horowitz is mad at the Colorado media. Seems that when the Centennial State started mulling ways to enact the Academic Bill of Rights, a document devised and promoted by Horowitz's group Students for Academic Freedom, the local press suggested that it would amount to a quota bill for right-wing professors. Replied Horowitz:

You cannot impose quotas or promote balance under the provisions of a bill that says in so many words: "No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs."…Could anything be clearer? Yet, in its editorial, the Denver Post ignores the plain meaning of these words in order to accuse the Governor and the Republican Party of promoting the Academic Bill of Rights as a means to stack university faculties with Republicans…

Smart-assed history buffs might retort that four decades ago, backers of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made the exact same promise; Hubert Humphrey famously declared that "nothing in the bill would permit any official or court to require any employer or labor union to give preferential treatment to any minority group." But the problem with Horowitz's bill of rights is not that it paves the way for quotas: It does indeed include the language he cites, which if read properly—and if preserved in whatever law actually gets passed—would preclude such policies. The problem is that it extends the concept of academic freedom to students as well as professors, creating contradictions that could be resolved in unfortunate ways. Consider these two measures:

3. Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

4. Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.

As broad principles, these are solid stuff. As enforced rules, they open the door to, say, a biology student lodging an official complaint because her professor gave short shrift to Creationism, or her boyfriend demanding a higher grade because he's convinced his poorly composed paper on the abortion debate was actually marked down for its political content. Suddenly, "academic freedom" starts to sound like an encroachment on the freedoms of the faculty.

And why might I worry that the rules would be so misused? Because I've looked at the rest of the Students for Academic Freedom website. The group's university "case studies" offer very few examples of conservative students or instructors being penalized for their views, preferring mostly to grouse that leftist views are present on campus in the first place. Two reports—one from Cornell, one from Southern Illinois University—direct their complaints not at bias in the classrooms but at bias in antiwar teach-ins. A dispatch from Holy Cross notes tartly that there had been "five recent campus presentations opposing the use of force against Saddam, and none favoring it." I think the reporter means officially sponsored presentations—the well-known hawk Daniel Pipes spoke there in February, after all—in which case he has proven, at most, that the administration tends to lean left on matters of foreign policy but puts no barriers in the way of those who'd like to offer other viewpoints. Whatever else that may constitute, it is hardly a violation of "academic freedom."

It's not clear what legislative remedy Horowitz would propose for such an "imbalance." One presumes, or at least hopes, that in the case of private institutions like Holy Cross he would not support a legislative remedy at all. But if this is the sort of activity that prompts a state or campus to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights, it's small wonder that people would worry about how those rules would be applied in practice. In the '80s and '90s the anti-P.C. backlash began, in part, because students offended by putatively bigoted courses were responding not by debating their professors but by taking them to the collegiate equivalent of court. It would be an unpleasant irony if, in 2003, the anti-P.C. backlash ends with conservative students earning the right to do the same thing.

If Horowitz's site doesn't bring affirmative action to mind, it does spark memories of the Fairness Doctrine, the Federal Communications Commission's policy—abandoned in 1987—of requiring radio and TV outlets to "balance" contentious commentary with opposing opinions. In theory, this promoted the free exchange of ideas. In practice, it was a way politicians or interest groups could harass stations that aired views they disliked. (The Nixon administration, for example, used it as a club against coverage of the antiwar movement.) There are differences, of course, but also striking parallels; even Horowitz's rhetoric recalls that of the Fairness Doctrine's boosters. When the Supreme Court upheld the FCC's rule in the Red Lion case of 1969, Justice White declared that the doctrine strengthened rather than violated the First Amendment because "It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount." Similarly, Horowitz's bill of rights defends its definition of academic freedom with a quote from the American Association of University Professors, declaring that the professor's "freedom to teach" cannot be separated from the student's "freedom to learn." (Homer Simpson was more succinct: "It takes two to lie, Marge—one to lie and one to listen.")

There's no such thing as a perfectly balanced debate, and a heavy-handed effort to create one is more likely to chill speech than to encourage it. The most worrisome thing about Horowitz's group is the sneaking suspicion that that's exactly what they want.