June 17, 2005

What’s behind the Student Bill of Rights?

By David Bacon

An older generation of teachers may remember the days of California’s loyalty oaths and red scares. During the cold-war, McCarthyite era of the early 1950s, educators accused of being Communists or harboring left-wing views were driven from the school system.

Today, witchhunts seem once again on the rise. The latest attempt to return to the era of red-baiting is called, ironically, the Student Bill of Rights. That has a fine, democratic ring to it. The phrase, however, is being used to restrict the ability of teachers to introduce controversial or provocative ideas into their classrooms. The argument goes like this: Conservative students are offended when “liberal” faculty try to force them to consider ideas with which they don’t agree. Political science or sociology instructors, for instance, who support the benefits of minimum or living wage ordinances for workers, should be prevented from advancing such liberal biases in class.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider the fact that 13 states have introduced legislation that would prohibit such “indoctrination.” These bills, a project of ultra-conservative ideologue David Horowitz, aren’t aimed at the many prestigious business schools around the country. There, instructors not only teach students that making profit is necessary and virtuous, but insist students learn to do so as efficiently as possible. Instead, these measures are directed against teachers who question such established ideas.

    This spring in Santa Rosa, conservative students supporting the state’s own version of the Student Bill of Rights demonstrated where this is headed.

    On February 25, leaflets quoting Section 51530 of the Education Code were anonymously posted on the doors of ten faculty members at Santa Rosa Junior College. 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.” Fifty years ago, when left-wing teachers were hounded out of the state’s school system during the cold war, this code section was rushed through the legislature to make it legal.

A subsequent press release by the Santa Rosa Junior College Republicans claimed responsibility. “We did this because we believe certain instructors at SRJC are in violation of California state law,” it said. The same day, a news release was posted on the website of California College Republicans, titled “Operation ‘Red Scare,’” saying the action targeted “10 troublesome professors.” The organ-ization’s chair, Michael Davidson, told blogger John Gorenfeld that “a lot of the college professors are leftovers from the Seventies - and Communist sympathizers.”

In a letter to the campus newspaper, the Oak Leaf, the president of the SRJC College Republicans, Molly McPherson, explains that “The instructors I ‘targeted’ were not selected at random ... There have even been accounts of JC teachers openly advocating Communist and Marxist theories... [which have] been outlawed in the classrooms of a country with the strongest free speech rights in the world.”

When the campus Republicans found it hard to document the massive teaching of communism at the junior college, they retreated to general complaints of “leftist bias” by faculty members. Evidence to support charges of biased teaching seemed just as scarce. In a forum discussing the flyer, student trustee Nick Caston pointed out, “I have been on the Board of Review (the last step of the grievance process) for three years and have never heard a complaint about bias in the class room.”

“I’ve never even talked with any of the students who were involved in this,” commented red-starred professor Marty Bennett. “But I do teach a lot of labor history in my social sciences classes, and I’m identified in the community as someone involved in the labor movement. That’s probably why I was chosen.” Other instructors also had had little or no contact with the young Republicans. Bennett says that because of the incident, “some teachers were reluctant to take up more controversial subjects. But it pushed others towards an activism they might not have considered before.”

    On her organization’s website, McPherson says the flyering was “just in time for one of our senators introducing the academic bill of rights in April.” That bill, SB 5, introduced by Sen. Bill Morrow, R-San Juan Capistrano, says, “faculty shall not use their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.”

David Horowitz’ website warns that “while a professor is on campus or in an academic setting, he or she has professional responsibilities that make partisan political action unacceptable,” and that “all too frequently, professors behave as political advocates in the classroom, express opinions in a partisan manner on controversial issues irrelevant to the academic subject.” In an era in which Governor Schwarzenegger has gone to war with the state’s teachers, Horowitz’s admonitions would silence protest against him. On April 20, SB 5 failed to pass the Senate Education Committee. McPherson and her clubmates fared equally poorly in late April student body elections at SRJC, when the slate they supported lost by a 2-1 majority.

Nevertheless, bills similar to Morrow’s have been introduced into 13 other states this year. Defending one in the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio State Senator Larry Mumper warned that “card-carrying Communists,” whom he defined as “people who try to over-regulate and try to bring in a lot of issues we don’t agree with,” are teaching at universities.

Isn’t that what the free market in ideas is all about?

David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border was published last year by University of California Press.


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