The Whole Academic Freedom Thing


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.