Aspecter 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 hurling reckless charges that hordes of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government before, during and after World War II.
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 crafted a campaign to stifle the speech of liberal academics. Disguised as an attempt to broaden free speech on campus, Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights has been making the rounds of statehouses and college campuses during the past year or so. Legislators in 14 states, including California, Florida, Minnesota and Maine, have introduced bills on that theme.
In early June, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “four state universities in Colorado… [had] adopted the principles under legislative pressure in 2004.”
In Florida, State Representative Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) has introduced an Academic Freedom Bill of Rights. 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, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” Baxley maintained.
The bill went nowhere after passing a committee vote in March, but Baxley “also appealed directly to the state’s university presidents to implement his proposals administratively,” says Susan Greenbaum, president of the Faculty Senate at the University of South Florida. As chair of the Education Council and a member of the Education Appropriations Committee, she adds, he “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.”
Horowitz set up Students for Academic Freedom in 2003 to do the grunt work. 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 in Santa Rosa, Calif., veteran journalist David Bacon reported, college Republicans posted leaflets on the doors of ten faculty members, accusing them of “teaching communism.” California law makes that illegal. The California College Republicans called the episode “Operation Red Scare.”
Horowitz’s efforts on campuses across the country and Rep. Baxley’s work in Florida “represent 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.
Bill Berkowitz writes the “Conservative Watch” column for WorkingForChange.com, where this was originally published.