Friday, February 16, 2007

The Worst Bill Ever for Academic Freedom

I’ve just read the Arizona legislation embraced by David Horowitz, and I believe it would be, if enacted and enforced, the worst legislative attack on academic freedom in the history of American higher education.

The law covers anyone “working in an official capacity for a university” or a community college. This is clearly meant to cover classroom teaching, but it could include a wide range of other activities, including research and other expressions of opinion. But the limit on classroom discussion alone is appalling.

Consider this ban: a professor cannot “Endorse, support or oppose any pending, proposed or enacted local, state or federal legislation, regulation or rule.” That means, for example, that a professor cannot say in class, “I support the US abolition of slavery,” because it is an endorsement of enacted legislation, the 13th Amendment.

Even worse, the law prohibits professors who “Advocate one side of a social, political or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.” This is one of the broadest attacks on academic freedom imaginable. Can a professor declare that the Holocaust happened? No, because there are some political parties (notably in Iran) which regard this as controversial. Can a biology professor teach about evolution as a fact? No, because there are numerous Republican legislators who consider it controversial. In one fell swoop, the law not only bans all expressions of opinion by instructors, but also the teaching of most facts because some idiot somewhere disputes reality.

The punishment for this law is particularly bad: the attorney general or a county attorney can file a civil claim for a $500 fine against any professor who violates the law, even if the university and all faculty colleagues oppose the punishment. In addition, any instructor will be subject to disciplinary action in addition to the fine.

Even if it was never enforced, this law is appalling because it requires the Arizona board of regents for universities (the state attorney general for community colleges) to publish guidelines banning controversial ideas, and forces all instructors to undergo three hours of training every year in these unconstitutional restrictions on free expression.

UPDATE: David Horowitz has clarified his views on the bill: "I oppose – unconditionally and without reservation – all those clauses of SB 1612 that refer to higher education." However, he still embraces the attack on the academic freedom of K-12.

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