Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2006

The Eclipse of Academic Freedom: Coalition Fights to Protect Free Speech

Free Exchange on Campus, a broad coalition of student, faculty and civil liberty groups in the United States, has launched a campaign to oppose the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights.”

The proposed bill, promoted by conservative activist David Horowitz, is “a politically motivated attempt to curb learning on campus by forcing an ideological agenda and curbing the free exchange of ideas,” said Megan Fitzgerald, director of the Center for Campus Free Speech, one of the 10 organizations in the coalition.

Citing data purporting to show that Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in faculty positions, advocates say the bill would maintain political pluralism and diversity.

But Fitzgerald and others who oppose the bill say that Horowitz and his supporters have failed to produce evidence of discrimination against conservative students and faculty.

Elena Cross, a student at Pennsylvania State University, said that her university had been unable to document a bias problem when asked to do so by a member of the state legislature that is considering adopting a version of the bill.

Penn State president Graham Spanier turned over five years’ worth of records of student complaints of bias.

Cross said there were 13 complaints of alleged professorial bias and all were resolved with investigations that uncovered no improper bias.

“Since this covered 177,457 courses, 8,000 faculty and 80,000 students at all of the Penn State campuses, this is a significant finding,” she said.

Twenty-five states have introduced legislation modeled on the bill that critics say would limit speech by faculty members on a wide range of topics. In most of these states, the bill has failed, yet Horowitz continues to find conservative legislators to promote the bill.

The bill calls on universities and colleges to ensure there is political diversity in what is taught and there is no political discrimination in hirings.

Many academics have condemned the movement, saying the proposal is really about imposing conservative ideology into classroom discussions.

“There is no liberal scientific method or conservative scientific method,” said Lisa Klein, president of Rutgers University Faculty Association and Rutgers American Association of University Professors/ American Federation of Teachers chapter president.

Klein, a tenured professor of material sciences and engineering, said she opposes the bill because it means “students will not be exposed to ideas that are new or contentious or unconventional. This to me seems truly unfortunate and a disservice to students.”

The AAUP writes in a statement that “when carefully analyzed, the Academic Bill of Rights undermines the very academic freedom it claims to support.”

The AAUP also said the bill “threatens to impose administrative and legislative oversight on the professional judgement of faculty, to deprive professors of the authority necessary for teaching, and to prohibit academic institutions from making the decisions that are necessary for the advancement of knowledge.”