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What’s Really Behind the ‘Student Bill of Rights’?

Young conservatives are trying to revive McCarthy-era witch-hunts on campuses.
 
 
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An older generation of teachers may remember the days of loyalty oaths and red scares. During the McCarthyite early 1950s, educators accused of being Communists or harboring left-wing views were driven from the state's school system. Today, witch-hunts seem once again on the rise.

The latest attempt to return to the time of red-baiting is called -- ironically -- the "Student Bill of Rights." Despite its fine, democratic ring, the phrase is being used to restrict teachers from introducing 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 they don't agree with. Political science or sociology instructors, for instance, who support the benefits of living-wage laws for workers, should be stopped from advancing such liberal biases in class.

This may sound far-fetched, but 13 states already have introduced bills that would ban such liberal "indoctrination." These bills, a project of ultraconservative ideologue David Horowitz, aren't aimed at the many prestigious business schools where students aren't only taught that making profit is necessary and virtuous, but also that they should learn to do so as efficiently as possible. Instead, the bills are aimed at teachers who question such established ideas.

This spring in Santa Rosa, conservative students backing the state's own version of the Student Bill of Rights showed where their effort is headed.

On February 25, leaflets quoting Section 51530 of the Education Code were posted on the doors of ten faculty members at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Quoting the code, the leaflet says: "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 code 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 schools at the height of the Cold War, this code section was rushed through the legislature to make the purges legal.

A later press release by the Santa Rosa Junior College Republicans claimed responsibility for the leaflets: "We did this because we believe certain instructors at SRJC are in violation of California state law." The same day, a news release titled "Operation 'Red Scare'" ran on the California College Republicans' website, saying the leaflets targeted "10 troublesome professors." The group's chair, Michael Davidson, told blogger John Gorenfeld, "A lot of the college professors are leftovers from the Seventies -- and Communist sympathizers."

Writing to the campus newspaper the Oak Leaf, Molly McPherson, SRJC College Republicans president, explained 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 couldn't 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 on the controversy, 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," says red-tagged 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."

McPherson says the leaflet was "just in time for one of our senators introducing the academic bill of rights in April." That bill, SB5, pushed by Sen. Bill Morrow, R-San Juan Capistrano, said, "faculty shall not use their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination."

Horowitz's website charges 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." At a time when Governor Schwarzenegger has gone to war with the state's teachers, Horowitz's admonitions would silence protest against him.

SB5 failed to pass the Senate Education Committee on April 20. McPherson and her club mates also fared poorly in late April student body elections -- the slate they backed lost by a 2-1 majority.

Nevertheless, bills similar to Morrow's have been introduced in 13 other states this year. Defending one in the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio state senator Larry Mumper warned that "card-carrying Communists," are teaching at universities. He defined them as "people who try to over-regulate and try to bring in a lot of issues we don't agree with."

So what about the free market of ideas?

David Bacon is an associate editor of Pacific News Service. He is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is "The Children of NAFTA" (University of California Press, 2004).