New bill proposes fine for biased professors

By Jonathan Wroble

For professors at Arizona’s public schools, aligning too much with a red or blue state could mean a little less green.

That’s the contention of a new bill that would keep professors from endorsing a political candidate or any one side of a controversial issue in the classroom. The penalty for a violating faculty member would be a fine of up to $500 or, in extreme cases, suspension.

Legislation of this kind is not necessarily new to Arizona. On March 9, 2006, the state Senate voted against a similar bill that would have allowed students to pursue separate coursework in any class where they found the content to be offensive.

“The Arizona bills are by far the most extreme examples of these types of bills,” said Craig Smith, co-coordinator of Free Exchange on Campus, a coalition to protect the flow of ideas at schools. “(They) are trying to legislate a nonexistent problem.”

Over the last three years, attempts to pass similar legislation have been made in 26 states, said Smith. To date, no single bill has become law.

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In the academic world, bills like this Arizona legislation are typically linked to conservative activist David Horowitz and the coalition he founded, Students for Academic Freedom. In particular, Students for Academic Freedom aims to promulgate the Academic Bill of Rights, a document in support of political neutrality among professors.

But Horowitz has already spoken out against the Arizona bill, and Brad Shipp, national field director for Students for Academic Freedom, also opposes it.

“Higher education legislation is not something we support,” Shipp said. “(Universities) ought to do this on their own.”

Still, even if Shipp disagrees with the method of passing the Arizona bill, he and Students for Academic Freedom agree with some of its ideas.

“A professor should take a neutral stance (in the classroom), or as neutral as possible,” he said. “The university is not for the glorification of the professor, it’s about the education … of the student.”

Some student groups have already taken action that better resembles the mission of Students for Academic Freedom. At Princeton University, for example, the College Republicans proposed a student bill of rights for the school in July 2006.

“When it comes down to it, we want the students to stand up for their rights,” Shipp said.

At the same time, Smith and groups involved with Free Exchange on Campus feel that students are already protected on college campuses across the nation, and that they don’t need their own bill of rights or even a bill like in Arizona.

“We really feel like this is a distraction,” Smith said. “(They’re) trying to pass legislation that already exists at the institutional level.”

Specifically, Smith explained that almost every college or university has an academic freedom policy that warns professors against bringing outside controversy into the classroom. This policy is “directed at faculty, but it protects students,” Smith said.

Depending on its outcome, the legislation currently pending in Arizona could be a victory for either side. As of now, no date for an official senatorial vote has been set.