The Journal Editorial Report | September 23, 2005 | PBS
College campuses are supposed to be havens of free-thinking. Not so for Marissa Freimanis, a junior at Cal State Long Beach. She says her straight-A record came to an end after her conservative views infuriated her English professor.
"I got the lowest grade in the class," says Freimanis. "He told us that we would be writing an essay on FARENHEIGHT 9/11. The reason that we write these papers is for him to correct our mechanical and grammatical mistakes that we make of which I had none. The only thing that he wrote on my paper, in big red maker, was that I had missed the point of the film. When a student expresses a point of view different from that of the professor's, the response is most often one of dismissal -- telling the students 'You are ignorant or you don't know anything.'"
Now, a group called students for academic freedom says if universities won't protect their right to have and express conservative views, they will find lawmakers who will. In Georgia recently, the state legislature held hearings to investigate clashes between conservative students and their liberal professors.
"Anytime something gets swung way too far in one direction, it's got to come back to the center and be balanced again," says Freimanis. "And if it takes the state to do that, then that is what needs to happen."
David Horowitz, a leftwing radical at Columbia University in the 50's now turned conservative activist, is the man behind Students for Academic Freedom. Horowitz says campuses in the McCarthy era were more intellectually free than they are today.
"It's a huge problem," says Horowitz. "We have had Republican students, conservative students, hauled up in front of their class to explain, how anyone could be a Republican. This is grotesque. This is very specifically a question of the academic freedom of students, their right not to be subjected to indoctrination when they have paid for, and their parents have paid for, an education."
Horowitz says after college administrators refused to acknowledge problems or make internal policy changes, he turned to the government. "Why are we concerned about the ethics of Enron and not concerned about the ethics of Harvard?" he asks. "This is a matter of the integrity of American educational institutions."
Congress is considering an Academic Bill of Rights and at least 16 states have introduced bills that would limit what instructors can discuss in class and establish grievance procedures for students. But whether changing the law would protect or destroy First Amendment rights is at the center of a sharp national debate.
Roger Bown, a political science professor for 25 years, former college president and current head of the American Association of University Professors. Bowen says the proposed laws would strip professors of their first amendment rights. "Faculty and faculty alone have the right to determine the content of a course, not David Horowitz, not Congress, not the Pennsylvania state legislature or any other state legislature," he says. "If government is in the classroom, some faculty who are not tenured are going to worry about students bad-mouthing them, criticizing them, accusing them of being too liberal. If it's a question of self-preservation, that faculty member will likely withhold the truth from students."
Bowen says that the universities should police themselves, not have laws do it for them. "We already have standards, professional standards, and I believe the vast majority of faculty adhere to those professional standards. What David Horowitz is trying to do is create a cure so-called that is much worse than the disease. Horowitz is an enemy of academic freedom."
Not so, says Horowitz. "My critics are the McCarthyites," he says. "Of course they are the witch hunters. If the administration and the trustees will not enforce their own academic freedom principles, then the legislatures have a legal obligation to step in and see that the university's policies are respected."
But students like Dartmouth sophomore Morgan Cohen say students rights do not need protecting. "The moment you legislate academic freedom is the moment that it starts to disappear," says Cohen. "The best way to protect academic freedom is to leave it what it is, which is free. Free from restrictions. Especially restrictions imposed by state governments."
Critics chalk up the controversy to what they call the growing conservative tidal wave sweeping the nation. What is happening in the universities is part of a larger trend, suggests Roger Bowen.
"Republicans, the conservatives today, they have got the White House. They have got Congress. They have got the courts. I think they are going after the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and I also think they are going after universities because, their goal is to mold American public opinion over the long term. So, they are looking not just at the immediate, the here and the now, but instead say, 'How can we guarantee that conservatism will be the reigning ideology of America 20, 30 years from now?'"
The federal resolution is expected to be voted on this fall. Horowitz says his academic freedom crusade is aiming at grades K-12 next because he says those children are the most vulnerable. His crusade, he adds, has just begun.
"People with Napoleonic complexes sometimes wind up on Elba," says Bowen. "That would be my warning to Mr. Horowitz."