Civil Liberties

The Whole Academic Freedom Thing

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Inside Higher Ed reports that Thayer Verschoor, the Republican majority leader in the Arizona Senate, is sponsoring a bill to

ban professors at public colleges and universities, while working, from:

* Endorsing, supporting or opposing any candidate for local, state or national office.

* Endorsing, supporting or opposing any pending legislation, regulation or rule under consideration by local, state or federal agencies.

* Endorsing, supporting or opposing any litigation in any court.

* Advocating "one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy."

* Hindering military recruiting on campus or endorsing the activities of those who do….

Punishments could come in two forms. The governing boards' guidelines would need to develop procedures, including suspensions and terminations in some cases, according to the bill. In addition, the state attorney general and county prosecutors could sue violators, and state courts could impose fines of up to $500. The legislation would bar colleges or their insurance policies from paying the fines—money would need to be paid directly by the professors found guilty.

The bill might have been inspired by David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," but it goes much further than it, and Horowitz himself is opposed to the legislation.

This isn't the first time Verschoor has tangled with what he has called "the whole academic freedom thing." This time last year he was backing a bill that would force any public university in the state to give students "alternative coursework" if they find an assignment "personally offensive." And what prompted that proposal? From an earlier Inside Higher Ed piece:

Sen. Thayer Verschoor [cited] complaints he had received about The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody that was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. "There's no defense of this book. I can't believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material," Verschoor said at the hearing, according to The Arizona Star. Other senators spoke at the hearing, the newspaper reported, against colleges teaching "pornography and smut."…

Adultery is central to the novel and one of its most famous scenes involves a "key party," in which couples throw their car keys in bowl, and then pull out keys to decide which wife will sleep with which husband (not her own) after the party. From comments at the Senate markup of the bill, it seems clear that lawmakers had heard about the wife swapping, but [Prof. Bill] Mullaney [who assigned the novel] and others doubt that they actually read the book. If they had, they might have realized that Moody's portrayal of '70s culture is far from admiring.

Presumably the senators were busy with their alternative coursework.

My favorite part of the Ice Storm story:

Mullaney…had a reference on his syllabus to the controversial nature and "adult themes" of some works, and he draws students' attention to that reference on the first day, when they have time to switch courses or sections. In the case of the student whose complaint apparently set off the bill, however, he ignored the warning and demanded an alternate book several weeks into the course, saying he hadn't paid attention when Mullaney noted the material earlier.

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  1. There’s no reason why any student should have to read a work that discusses debauched or decadent behavior. For instance, if professor teaching a course on ancient literature were to assign students to read Bible passages about Sodom and Gomorrah, the students should be able to refuse!

    (that was sarcasm, for the record)

  2. “Advocating “one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.””

    Mein Gott!

    Can imagine a class now:

    “duh. okay. There’s like these monkeys. And they’re created in the image of trees where they came down from. heh. I said ‘came’.”

    Idiocracy here we come! (grin)

    “Today we’re going to look at the magnificent film, ‘Ass'”

  3. thoreau,

    Perhaps a more appropriate section would be Lot banging his daughters?

  4. “the students should be able to refuse!”

    They are able to refuse, you see. And when they refuse, they should be men (women?) about it, and take the damn F. Bunch ‘o cowards.

  5. oooh – Thanks, Gro! I understand it now. Lot’s wife was actually one of the wondertwins and she transformed into the first inter-galactic sex toy and deer lick?

    It all makes so much sense, now.

  6. BTW, does anyone buy the idea that Lot was so drunk he didn’t realize that he was having sex with daughters?

  7. I don’t know who’s right or wrong here, but somebody better go to rehab.

  8. For the record, I don’t think a class should be a political soap box, but there are lots of gray areas, especially on this one:

    * Advocating “one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.”

    The benefit of the doubt should go to the professor. You should be able to draw supply and demand curves and talk about price elasticity of labor and price floors without getting in trouble because the minimum wage is a political issue. You should be able to calculate the amount of sunlight absorbed by a given volume of CO2 in the atmosphere without getting in trouble because global warming is a political issue. And so forth.

  9. Jesse Walker,

    FYI:

    There is a whole line of case law dealing with regulation of speech by government employees.

  10. I thought Noah banged his daughters? Or was it his sons? Lot let the mob in Sodom borrow his daughters for a while if I recall.

    My personal fav is when the israelites stab some tyrant while he’s on the crapper.

  11. I use to laugh at shit like this. I use to think you could fit everyone that could possibly take this crap seriously, on a bus.

    Now this kind of talk scares the piss out of me. Zeus! I hope this dies the quick painful death it deserves. And I hope people point and laugh at Sen. Verschoor everywhere he goes, so as to discourage other puritanical asshats from future attempts at codifying their self-loathing into law.

  12. thoreau,

    …I don’t think a class should be a political soap box…

    Some subject matter is just “inherently,” well, “political.”

    For example, I’ll note that it is common in introductory world history courses for the issue of evolution and early human development to be raised and for students to challenge the validity of such.

  13. “the first inter-galactic sex toy and deer lick”

    If that isn’t the title of an album from GWAR, it really should be.

  14. The only thing it’s missing is the ex post facto clause that illegalizes disagreeing with the bill before it becomes law.

  15. I gather, if this bill is passed, that all classes at the universitis in Arizona will consist of sixty minutes of silent meditation.

  16. Don’t want your preconceptions challenged, or to read things that make you uncomfortable? Then perhaps higher education is not for you. Bob Jones University might be a good alternative.

  17. Would it be illegal to discuss this bill, and the whole “academic freedom thing” in class?

    …didn’t King David a little wife swapping?

    He did not support the troops.

  18. For the record, I don’t think a class should be a political soap box…

    No it shouldn’t. But even if it is, the legislature is the LAST bunch of assclowns I want trying to fix it.

  19. Bhh,

    Lot offered his daughters up to the mob so that he could save the “strangers.” Various translations differ on what they wanted to do the strangers; some state they just wanted to “see” them while others speak to more unsavory intentions.

    Anyway, Lot definately screwed his daughters; indeed, the offspring went on to found Moab and Ammon and I think Jesus’ ancestry flows through their bloodline.

  20. correction

    ..David [do] a little wife swapping?

  21. Think back. Which profs taught you more? The ones who shared your beliefs or the ones who challenged them?
    Can anyone claim to be educated when they’ve tailored their coursework to avoid ever having to do any serious thinking?
    Do these people even know what the fuck a liberal education is?

  22. Think back. Which profs taught you more? The ones who shared your beliefs or the ones who challenged them?

    The latter of course, which actually got me on the road to libertarianism despite a very liberal family and group of friends. They may be a minority nationwide, but there are conservative and free market oriented professors out there! (Well, at least there were 30 years ago, says the old fart…)

  23. As a graduate student (not my real name, but you can email me!), and hopefully future professor, who does not share Verschoor’s Christian insensibilities, I think his bill, should it pass, might have some beneficial — from a libertarian perspective –unintended consequences.

    Most professors support politics that the average North American would consider radical and socialist. If they cannot endorse candidates, pending legislation, or express partiality in sensitive public policy issues, it will be a major blow to the cause of social democracy in the state of Arizona and, paradoxically — given that the bill is overt censorship — a victory for freedom.

    Given who it will most effect, it might not be worth fighting.

    In terms of giving undergraduate students the legal power to change curriculum, that’s a much bigger problem. Hopefully, this aspect of the bill could be amended. However, it is not clear that students don’t already possess this power on campus. If a professor wanted to explore the possibility of an innate deficiency in women in scientific and mathematical thought do you think a complaint from a militant feminista would move the university administration to ask the professor to change the course’s content?

  24. I guess if professors want to be political, then they should just stick to private universities.

    In my career as a student, I only noticed the professors politics getting in the way once. Specifically my Constitutional Law professor at a California state subsidized law school was way too partisan on Constitutional issues, primarily Interstate commerce and Tenth Amendment. Kind of ironic given how California has gone since then.

    Then he left mid-semester to take a full-time position in the Clinton presidential campaign.

    Iguess my position is that bans on state employee’s speech are okay so long as the standards for bans are written, not ex post facto, content-neutral and personality-neutral.

    When it becomes a matter of a bunch of loudmouths voting an unpopular person off “Survivor Island” then I think bans do more harm then good. Always a danger in the world of banning. Trial of Socrates becomes the norm.

  25. Idiocracy here we come! (grin)

    But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. It has electrolytes.

    And stop talking like a fag.*

    *calm down, it’s a movie reference.


  26. Most professors support politics that the average North American would consider radical and socialist. If they cannot endorse candidates, pending legislation, or express partiality in sensitive public policy issues, it will be a major blow to the cause of social democracy in the state of Arizona and, paradoxically — given that the bill is overt censorship — a victory for freedom.

    oh, balls.

  27. Dave W-Of course, if public universities become known as places where the coursework is safe and less than intellectually challenging, they run the risk of being relegated to the same bin in which one places schools like Bob Jones University.

  28. I think many libertarians, myself included, would support prohibitions on government employees (including police), from voting, discussing matters of public policy in the media, etc. If this bill were to apply only to public universities, then maybe it should be supported.

  29. Robert Seymour,

    I don’t support such things.

  30. Of course, if public universities become known as places where the coursework is safe and less than intellectually challenging, they run the risk of being relegated to the same bin in which one places schools like Bob Jones University.

    Yeah, my problem with my Con Law professor wasn’t that he was pro-Interstate Commerce Clause, nor that he was anti-Tenth Amendment. I did not expect the guy to be converted, not even marginally, to my crypto-Federalist Society thinking.

    My problem was that he didn’t want to discuss the issues with me — in class or out — because he considered them closed.

    First, he was wrong about the issues being closed. Second, do you have any idea how lonely a person feels when no one wants to talk to him?

  31. Robert- I disagree. If the purpose of a university is to educate, then clamping down on dissent will be counterproductive.

    I must say that I have zero sympathy-none-for “students” who are such intellectual cowards that the idea of encountering a different view offends them. Not to put too fine a point on it, they should stop pretending to be interested in learning and enroll in Oral Roberts University or someplace similar.

  32. I hate go classical on y’all, but like, has anyone here read the Apology?

  33. Robert,

    I’m not sure which libertarians you mean. Besides, how does one draw the line between normal course material and endorsing a partisan viewpoint?

    For lack of a better way of saying it, fuck these political pricks and their need to have every aspect of life be part of their cock-measuring contest!

  34. Number 6,

    Well, one would also have to create a huge bureaucracy to enforce such laws.

  35. Grotius | February 22, 2007, 1:03pm | #
    I hate go classical on y’all, but like, has anyone here read the Apology?

    This may, in fact, be the most blatant lie ever told on the internet.

  36. Timothy,

    The reason that I hate to go classical is because you’re such a dick about it. Your latest statement being of course being an example of such.

  37. Dave W- Sounds like you got a shitty prof. Encountering a prof who will talk and who challenge you can be a life-changing experience. I remember one in particular who challenged pretty much all of my preconceptions. Our ritual was to meet at the door after class and continue our discussion/debate all the way across campus. While my ideas didn’t change that much, my understanding of why I held them and what their weaknesses are did. When I picked up a second major in Philosophy, that sort of thing became the norm,not the exception. Class became something to anticipate for days beforehand, not a period of time to be endured. That is education, and I feel sorry for those who didn’t or won’t experience it.

  38. Grotius: Plato’s Apology? Of course. That text should be required reading for every student.

  39. Number 6,

    Yes, I agree.

  40. Grotius: One usually avoids doing things one hates. I think it’s therefore a safe assumption that you don’t hate going classical, seeing as you don’t avoid it. Some might go so far to say that you actively seek excuses for same.

  41. I majored in economics in a department that included two superb professors, both genuine wizards in the classroom. One was a libertarian, and the other a Marxist. You knew where both stood within minutes of the first day of class–and you knew you were in for an intellectual adventure. There’s nothing wrong with classroom advocacy, as long as professors don’t insist on ideological conformity when grading and are open about their agenda. I sure don’t want my kid to go to a college where professors feel compelled to be bland.

  42. Timothy,

    I think you actively seek excuses to discuss economics, because, you know, you talk about economics a lot. Do you see how fucking studid that sort of accusation is?

    I make the arguments that I do with the knowledge in my head. It is what I have; I use it to the best of my ability. If you don’t like that, tough shit.

  43. jbd,

    I sure don’t want my kid to go to a college where professors feel compelled to be bland.

    It would probably be worse than bland.

  44. I only had one class where I thought that the professor’s politics were really a turn off. At the time, I actually agreed with the professor, but I thought it was pretty bad the way he was doing things.

    Even then, however, I thought that there were bigger problems than just the fact that he went political. The assignment that really got me was a bad assignment on its face:

    It was 1996. There was an election. I was taking an economics class. The professor taught from a particular (fairly common) perspective. He asked us to evaluate the candidates based on their economic policies and offer a recommendation.

    OK, fair enough, apply the course to current events. Great, right?

    Well, he wanted us to consider two very particular aspects of economic policy and do it from the perspective of the theories he was teaching. He had made it pretty clear in his lectures that there was only one analysis that he considered valid for these candidates and these issues.

    So, basically, write an essay explaining his position.

    Now, I have no problem with trying to understand somebody’s perspective, nor do I have a problem with limiting the scope of the class in the interests of time. But the answer was basically given in class, and basically we could have regurgitated his ideas in a paragraph or less. Yet we had to turn this into a couple pages.

    If the assignment had been more challenging, asking the student to examine and weigh a wider range of issues, and answer some questions that might not have easy answers, then the professor’s partisan stance would have been irrelevant. But he gave such a narrowly focused assignment that it was almost impossible to do it without reciting his partisan preference.

    If the professor’s partisan preferences matter to the course, then the political considerations are probably minor in comparison with the bigger pedagogical problems going on.

  45. as long as professors don’t insist on ideological conformity when grading and are open about their agenda
    That part is key.

  46. Number 6 and Dave W:

    welcome to the new “higher education is a business” model. extremely high student to teacher ratios make it difficult if not impossible for instructors to meet with, discuss, or debate students, because there are just too many of them, and there isn’t enough time to get all the work done as it is.

  47. Number 6,

    Well, the risk of academic freedom is that some professors will abuse it. Then again, license is the risk of freedom in just about any area of life. IMHO, that risk is worth the vast benefits that academic freedom provides.

  48. Grotius: Agreed.
    Biologist: Yeah, I’m aware of that phenomenon. And I hate it.

  49. “I hate go classical on y’all, but like, has anyone here read the Apology?”

    i have! i have!

    this bill is frigging weird. if you can’t stand alone in a college classroom, what hope do you have out in the real world?

    also, why are some conservatives such wussies?

  50. I don’t think it just conservatives, dhex. Or liberals, for that matter. It’s the pervasive “anything I don’t like should be illegal” mentality that people have that’s at the root of this stuff.

  51. that’s true, but i see similar parallels in conservative christians – who are a sizable chunk of the population – acting like they’re three inches away from being tossed to the lions by homosexuals and liberal pagans or whatever.

  52. What is the proper word to describe someone who is old enough to be in a college level literature course but delicate enough to be unable to be exposed to books about adultery?
    Is this person going to be harmed by Tolstoy, Hawthorne, and the Bible?
    What can they read? No Shakespeare, no Sophocles, no moderns.
    Being totally illiterate is the only safe course.

  53. What is the proper word to describe someone who is old enough to be in a college level literature course but delicate enough to be unable to be exposed to books about adultery?

    David Horowitz.

  54. slugger:

    well, they say ignorance is bliss

  55. Slugger,

    The word is totalfuckinpussy.

    that’s true, but i see similar parallels in conservative christians – who are a sizable chunk of the population – acting like they’re three inches away from being tossed to the lions by homosexuals and liberal pagans or whatever.

    At this point, I just assume that stuff is grandstanding bullshit to get the nominal Christian to nod along with whatever legislative nonsense they’re asking for.

  56. as long as professors don’t insist on ideological conformity when grading and are open about their agenda

    With freedom comes responsibility, in other words.

    And right behind abdication of responsibility comes loss of freedom.

  57. “”* Endorsing, supporting or opposing any candidate for local, state or national office.””

    Isn’t voting an endorsment and support of a candidate?

  58. The issue is not with professors, but with the folks who run the universities. Any professor who insists on conformity with his/her political views and beliefs is doing a shitty job of teaching and should be canned immediately. Especially considering how obscene tuitions have become even at public universities.

  59. My favorite prof was a junior college prof — taught government.

    He was the faculty advisor (or whatever it was called) for the campus branch of the College Democrats. He was, in fact, a staunch Republican. He just felt it was pointless to have a College Republicans branch without College Democrats (this is a very conservative area — the entire government faculty was Republican).

    He was a highly efficient devil’s advocate. Political issues were discussed, and whatever point of view a student was advocating, he was advocating the opposite.

    For all I know, it was a giant game to him — see how flexible he could be. Or perhaps he truly believed that heated discourse was the best way to understand one’s beliefs.

    Fun prof.

  60. If the measure is passed, I wonder how long it will be before an attempt is made to extend its provisions to private institutions that accept government grant money for tuition or research projects? Place your bets!

  61. “I wonder how long it will be before an attempt is made to extend its provisions to private institutions that accept government grant money for tuition or research projects? Place your bets!”

    um. a few years ago?

  62. There is simply no room for Verschoor’s legislation in the marketplace of ideas.

  63. Robert Seymour,

    Your argument, in a broader sense, comes up again and again, in various guises. The most common one is that we mustn’t liberalize immigration because them immigrants are gonna vote for social programs.

    But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Selectively allowing freedom only to those who would supposedly help advance the cause of freedom is NOT an advancement of freedom! The logical extension of such reasoning as yours would be to take the vote away from blacks and (as if we could manage it!) women because they vote for social programs as well! (Note I’m not accusing you of backing such a cause, only using an extreme example that clearly flows from your logic to demonstrate the wrongness of your logic.) No, freedom ain’t freedom (at least as a political philosophy) unless it’s freedom for everyone and for simply being a human. If rights are conferred on a person based on that person’s value to the cause of freedom, then freedom, as a principle, is meaningless anyway.

    All that said, one may debate whether the bill in question abridges freedom since it only applies to people being paid out of taxpayer generated funds, but A) I’m addressing and attacking the specific logic you’re using, and B) I think the bill is a bad and poisoned idea regardless of whether it’s technically a violation of libertarian principles.

  64. I think a far better “student bill of rights” would be to ban all public funding of humanities classes…wtf am I paying money for this crap for?

    Its not as if I can’t get a good deconstruction of popular culture, history and art for free on the fucking intertubes!

  65. …aside from the fact that there’s no way this would pass consitutional muster.

    If it does pass, results will be interesting to watch. State schools get turned into bland “let’s not say anything that will annoy any Christians”.

    Hmm. I wonder whether this means state schools in Texas will have to teach the geocentric view of the universe, as a “legitimate alternative”?

    More and more, I’m coming to the conclusion the US is populated by people far too stupid to deserve the level of technology and medicine they have access to.

    People in China must be laughing their asses off.

  66. If it does pass, results will be interesting to watch. State schools get turned into bland “let’s not say anything that will annoy any Christians”.

    As opposed to what we have now “lets not allow anything that will annoy the left”

  67. The left have squashed intellectual and academic freedom…now they are being called to task by those who see no problem with squashing those freedoms only their choice in what to squash…i have zero sympathy.

    The bill would not be an improvement…it also would not be a detriment to piece of shit we have right now.

  68. joshua corning apparently sees no difference between peer pressure and a gun in your face.

  69. Grotius | February 22, 2007, 12:21pm | #
    thoreau,

    Perhaps a more appropriate section would be Lot banging his daughters?

    That’s one of my favorite passages. The whole thing seems to be an elaborate excuse to insult the collective heritage of the Moabites and Ammonites.

  70. I don’t support this legislation and I wouldn’t support anything like it. However, I did once drop an American lit class because the professor often devolved her lectures into slavering rants against big business, the military, Republicans, money, internal combustion engines, and firearms. Probably some other stuff as well. I didn’t really care about anything she said, but I never felt like I was learning anything; the distraction was intolerable.

    Still, I never thought of trying to shut her up- I just moved along.

  71. “I think a far better “student bill of rights” would be to ban all public funding of humanities classes…wtf am I paying money for this crap for?”

    yeah, totally! fuck art! fuck literature!

    wooo! woooo!

  72. “As opposed to what we have now “lets not allow anything that will annoy the left”

    in all seriousness, is this really a problem?

    even the jesus crispies, despite their censorshiptastic, gay-hating, science-disliking ways, ultimately retard their own communities more than the external world.

  73. Anyway, Lot definately screwed his daughters; indeed, the offspring went on to found Moab and Ammon and I think Jesus’ ancestry flows through their bloodline.

    Not that anyone here cares, but Jesus (like the rest of the Jews) was descended from Abraham. Lot was Abraham’s nephew, so there’s no way Jesus could be descended from him.

  74. First they came for the thinkers, and I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a thinker.

  75. Vershoor’s position, as expounded in this article, isn’t totally wacky. One could make a decent argument that an employer (in this case, the state) should make some effort to see that the employees are doing what they were hired to do. In the case of college profs, a major part of what they were hired to do is teach (not, theoretically, indoctrinate) students. Alternatively, if a substantial portion of their jobs becomes what is essentially professional lobbying, then we have the strange situation that the state uses taxpayer money to pay for its own lobbyists. This can’t be a good thing.

    The good news is that by this rationale, there is no possibility of the argument being extended to private schools, whether or not they’re little more than lobbyist firms dressed in academic clothing.

    It’s still a bad idea, but it can’t be dismissed by ranting that Vershoor is an asshat.

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