Students in a political science class at West Liberty University were given an assignment recently to keep a "politics journal" in which they would record their reactions to various articles they had selected.
The instructor at the West Virginia public institution included some possible news sources, such as The Economist, BBC, CNN and The Huffington Post. But the instructor also specified that two sources could not be used. One was The Onion, which the assignment notes "is not news" and "is literally a parody."
The other barred source is the one that got the instructor -- Stephanie Wolfe -- scrutiny this week. She banned articles from Fox News, writing: "The tagline 'Fox News' makes me cringe. Please do not subject me to this biased news station. I would almost rather you print off an article from the Onion."
Students shared the assignment with parents, who in turn called the university, and local reporters. President Robin Capehart said in an interview Thursday that the ban on Fox was inappropriate. He said that Wolfe (an adjunct who did not respond to voicemail or e-mail from Inside Higher Ed) realized she had made a mistake and told her class that they could quote that news source.
Capehart said that the university wants students to "conduct research and come to their own conclusions and be challenged." He said that banning Fox News as a news source "dampened inquiry," and he said he would have felt the same way about telling students not to use MSNBC.
"Isn't the idea that you use what sources you can and then you have to defend the facts?" he said. "To me that's what college is all about -- being able to conduct your research and conduct your own conclusions, and the professor needs to be able to challenge it."
Capehart stressed that Wolfe -- who is on a temporary appointment, filling in for a faculty member on leave -- made the decision to change her rule. Asked if the university would have intervened had she not changed her policy, he said he was not going to comment "on hypotheticals."
But some experts on academic freedom -- while stressing that they didn't know details of the case beyond press coverage sent to them -- said that there might be more issues at stake than one professor's dislike of Fox, especially if the dislike is based on her concerns about the network's reliability, not its politics.
Gregory F. Scholtz, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors and director of the AAUP's Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, said that "a professor has the right to say that certain news sources are unreliable," as long as that opinion is "subject to disciplinary standards." He noted that "as a professor of British literature, I frequently told my students that certain sources were unreliable. I doubt that anyone would have suggested that I shouldn't have done so."
If there are concerns about an instructor unfairly declaring some source off-limits, Scholtz stressed that such matters should be reviewed by faculty members, not administrators.
Via e-mail, Robert M. O'Neil, professor of law emeritus at the University of Virginia and former director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said via e-mail that the West Liberty case raised "genuinely perplexing" issues. The key question, he said, may be "the purpose of such a source constraint," and whether "it reflects content neutrality" or just a ban on conservative sources.
"It seems to me that any scholar/teacher must scrupulously avoid intruding into the classroom political or religious views that might be seen as biased or partisan," he said. And professors' statements about their political views should not "effectively distort or preempt students' capacity to shape and affirm or reject their views on such matters."
He added, however, that if "the teacher wishes to urge students simply to avoid possibly biased or unreliable sources in the interest of accuracy, and does so on a content-neutral basis, that's likely to be a different matter." He noted that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities successfully defended itself -- largely on academic freedom grounds -- against a suit over a genocide research center's list of "unreliable" websites.
O'Neil's advice: "An academic institution might well articulate for its students' benefit a statement reflecting that distinction -- urging faculty, on one hand, to avoid imposing upon its students more than passing mention of personal political or religious views, but at the same time urging students to seek accuracy, consistency and transparency in sources from which they draw material and shape views on such sensitive matters."