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$500 Fines for Political Profs

February 19, 2007

To date, 2007 hasn't seen much legislative progress for measures inspired by the "Academic Bill of Rights," the brainchild of David Horowitz that he says promotes diversity of thought on campuses, but that many faculty leaders believe is designed to squelch them. Bills have been introduced in nine states, according to Free Exchange on Campus, which opposes them. But with one exception, those bills haven't been moving.

The exception is Arizona, where a Senate committee on Thursday approved a bill that would go much further than the Academic Bill of Rights, and which has infuriated faculty and student leaders. The bill, whose chief sponsor is the Republican majority leader in the Senate, would 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.

Under the legislation, the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the state's public universities, and the individual boards of community colleges would be responsible for setting guidelines for the law and for requiring all faculty members to participate in three hours of training annually on their responsibilities under the law.

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.

It is unclear whether the legislation has the backing to become law. It was approved by the Senate Government Committee, on a 4-3 party line vote, amid reports that the Education Committee wasn't prepared to support the legislation. Given that the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Thayer Verschoor, is Republican majority leader, the legislation is being taken as a real threat -- even by those who expect it to be defeated at some point.

"This is a censorship bill. We are obviously very opposed," said Reyes Medrano Sr., president-elect of the Maricopa Community College District Faculty Association and a business professor at Paradise Valley Community College.

"We can't see what this bill would accomplish," Medrano said. He added that the group was stepping up lobbying efforts against the legislation, and would consider court action if the bill becomes law. "There is plenty to work with there," he said.

Serena Unrein, executive director of the Arizona Students' Association, said that the bill would prevent faculty members from discussing many things that belong in the classroom. "There are so many examples -- an economics professor couldn't talk about the viability of privatizing Social Security. Any time that there are efforts to restrict what college students are able to learn in the classroom, we should take it seriously."

The blog College Freedom has said the bill, if enacted, would be "the worst legislative attack on academic freedom in the history of American higher education." Even David Horowitz is opposed, saying that the bill goes too far. He wrote in a statement that he has never advocated legislative limits on what college faculty members may say in class.

In an interview on Friday, Verschoor defended his bill and pledged to push it. "In our institutions of higher education, students should be learning how to think, not what to think," he said.

Verschoor said that there has been "a problem for quite a while" with professors imposing politics on their students. He said that he hears about this all the time and reads newspaper articles about it all the time. 

Asked for specifics of the professorial behavior his bill would ban, he cited two examples from his own education at Arizona State University, from which he graduated in 1993. One time, he said, a classroom where his course met was next door to a classroom used by a women's studies class, which he entered one day by accident. "I came in and all of the male students were dressed like women, and the purpose was supposedly to see how a woman feels. I don't know how being in a dress and high heels would help with that. That was peculiar," he said.

In another case, he said, his comments offended a professor's political sensibilities. While Verschoor did not remember the specifics of the political exchange or the class, he said that the professor accused him of being "a political plant" and then said that "plants are to be urinated on."

Verschoor said that his intentions were not partisan and said that he had heard that some professors had criticized Sen. John Kerry in classes, and that he was offended by that as well as comments made against President Bush.

He also denied that the bill had anything to do with academic freedom. "You can speak about any subject you want -- you just don't take a position," he said.

 

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