Neocons Bludgeon Professors With ‘Academic Freedom’

OAKLAND, California – A specter is again haunting U.S. colleges and universities.

At the beginning of the Cold War in the early 1950s, Joseph McCarthy, the infamous Republican senator from Wisconsin, stalked the political landscape recklessly hurling charges that hordes of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government before, during, and after World War II.

Sen. McCarthy and his band of self-proclaimed patriots also trained their guns on the creative community – writers, directors, and actors working in Hollywood and on Broadway – as well as public school teachers and academics on college campuses across the country.

The hysteria these men stirred up through largely unsubstantiated charges caused thousands of people to lose their jobs. Some committed suicide.

Flash forward 50 years: David Horowitz, the 1960s left-wing radical turned right-wing activist/provocateur and Republican political consultant, has picked up McCarthy’s baton. Disguised as an attempt to broaden free speech on campus, Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights – which aims to stifle the speech of liberal academics – has been making the rounds of state houses and college campuses during the past year or so.

In Florida, State Representative Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) has introduced an Academic Freedom Bill of Rights after he “attended a conservative conference in St. Louis last summer where Horowitz spoke about academic freedom,” the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Baxley’s legislation, which in late March passed out of the House Choice and Innovation Committee by an 8-to-2 vote (the only two Democrats on the committee voted against it), was a broad assault on academic freedom.

In addition to guaranteeing that students would “not be punished for professing beliefs with which their professors disagree,” the bill would have advised professors “to teach alternative ‘serious academic theories’ that may disagree with their personal views.”

“Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design [a creationist theory], and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,'” Baxley maintained.

According to a legislative staff analysis of the bill, students who felt their views were disrespected in the classroom or thought they were singled out for “public ridicule” by their professors would have the right to sue them and the university.

“Despite the state Senate’s decision not to consider Baxley’s bill, I have heard that he hasn’t given up and may reintroduce the House bill next session,” Susan Greenbaum, the president of the Faculty Senate at the University of South Florida, told IPS.

“Baxley also appealed directly to the state’s university presidents to implement his proposals administratively. As chair of the Education Council and as a member of the Education Appropriations Committee, a very important House committee, Baxley certainly has their attention.”

“The real test,” Greenbaum pointed out, “will come in whether there is an escalation in student grievances at Florida universities, and what happens to those complaints. However, what seems to be lacking in this whole issue is real student dissatisfaction. They have garnered almost no action among students on these campuses; David Horowitz presented a pitiful array of dubious anecdotes when he testified in Tallahassee.”

In addition to Florida, legislators in 13 other states have introduced some type of “Academic Freedom” legislation. California and Maine are considering “an academic bill of rights [containing] an eight-point credo designed to increase political diversity in the classroom.”

In early June, the Christian Science Monitor reported that, “Four state universities in Colorado [had] adopted the principles under legislative pressure in 2004.”

In Minnesota, right-wing state senator Michelle Bachman, a vocal opponent of gay rights, introduced two bills modeled on Horowitz’s complaints, one targeted at state colleges and universities and one at state high schools.

Horowitz who operates a number of projects – including the online magazine out of the well-funded offices of his Los Angeles, Calif.-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture – set up Students for Academic Freedom in 2003, to do the grunt work. Since then, the Washington-based outfit has been making headway on college campuses across the nation.

Students for Academic Freedom is not only involved with lobbying state legislatures; on some campuses, they and similarly minded groups have launched an all-out assault on liberal professors, using classic McCarthyite tactics.

At Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) in Santa Rosa, Calif., the struggle over academic freedom took a particularly ugly turn earlier this year. Conservative students, supporting a California version of a Student Bill of Rights, issued “leaflets quoting Section 51530 of the [California] Education Code,” and then “anonymously posted [them] on the doors of ten faculty members” at the college, veteran journalist David Bacon reported.

The leaflet quoted the code:

“No teacher – shall advocate or teach communism with the intent to indoctrinate, inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism.” Such “advocacy,” the statute says, means teaching “for the purpose of undermining patriotism for, and the belief in, the government of the United States and of this state.”

Claiming responsibility for the action, SRJC Republicans issued a press release stating that they “did this because we believe certain instructors at SRJC are in violation of California state law.”

At the same time, a news release appeared on the website of California College Republicans headlined “Operation ‘Red Scare.'” In McCarthyite cant, the organization’s chair, Michael Davidson, told reporter John Gorenfeld “a lot of the college professors are leftovers from the Seventies – and Communist sympathizers.”

Meanwhile, in Florida, Horowitz’s local partner, Rep. Dennis Baxley, appears to see himself as a modern-day Daniel fighting the lions of liberal academia. During the debate over his legislation, Baxley claimed he was called a McCarthyist by “leftist critics [who] ridicule me for daring to stand up for students and faculty.”

Then, similar to a tactic used by Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself, Baxley claimed that he “had a list of students who were discriminated against by professors,” but, the St. Petersburg Times reported, he “refused to reveal names because he felt they would be persecuted.”

Horowitz’s efforts at campuses across the country, and Rep. Baxley’s work in Florida “represents an inversion of the original intent of academic freedom, which is to protect the right of professors to express controversial ideas without fear of retaliation,” Susan Greenbaum maintains.

“This protection is designed to shield free inquiry and encourage innovation. It enables the creation of new knowledge and secures the basis to challenge old ideas,” she continued.

“In Baxley’s bill – which is really the Horowitz bill – students are customers, whose tastes and prejudices must be accommodated. Professors are likened to vendors who must take care not to offend or disturb those who have come to purchase their wares.”

“It’s like the Wal-Mart model: Maybe they can import holographic images of professors made in China, attractive classroom automatons who can be programmed to present marketable and politically acceptable material,” she said dryly.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Bill Berkowitz