Colorado legislator Bob Hagedorn admits that when he proposed Senate Bill 85 in December, he was thinking of himself. In the wake of last fall's polarizing race for the White House, Hagedorn, a Democrat who is also a political-science professor at Metropolitan State College in Denver, grew more and more worried about saying the wrong thing as his students debated contentious issues like George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative and the teaching of creationism in schools. Earlier in the year, students had filed bias complaints against a colleague who had criticized Republicans. "I'm thinking 'My God, we don't want to go there,'" he recalls. Yet at the same time, in the spirit of dialogue, he did want to. So he wrote a bill intended as a professorial-insurance policy, protecting his and his colleagues' right to challenge student views "when relevant to the chosen course of study."
His bill might have been winding its way quietly through committee right now, if not for University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. Controversy erupted in January after word spread among students and alumni at Hamilton College in New York that Churchill, who had been invited to speak there, had penned an essay equating U.S. foreign policy with Nazi Germany's conduct in World War II and labeling some of the people working in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns," after the architect of the Holocaust. Hamilton canceled Churchill's engagement, but the furor spread. Outraged Colorado house members unanimously passed a resolution condemning his "evil and inflammatory" words. Colorado Governor Bill Owens called on Churchill to resign and urged lawmakers to consider changing tenure rules, normally the purview of the school and the elected board of regents that governs the state system. Wisconsin's state assembly overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding resolution asking the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater to cancel a March 1 speech by Churchill, but his visit went ahead last week as planned.
That legislative activism has drawn praise from conservatives (who see Churchill as the kind of lefty loony who typifies the bias of American academia) and scorn from liberals (who view the efforts as an attack on academic freedom). It's indicative of a broader trend of lawmakers' chipping away at the traditional insularity of the ivory tower, claiming that universities are out of touch with their communities and spending tax dollars irresponsibly. But are legislators the right people to be setting the boundaries for civil--and free--discourse on the campuses of public colleges and universities?
Minnesota lawmakers last week became the latest to rally to the cause of conservative activist David Horowitz, whose Academic Bill of Rights is meant to rescue students from what the legislators perceive as rampant liberal bias. Over the past two months, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee have also started considering bills that would codify Horowitz's ideas by, say, not allowing students to be punished with a bad grade for their views. Georgia's senate passed a similar nonbinding resolution last year, while Colorado's version was withdrawn after state-university administrators signed a pledge to ensure that "political diversity is explicitly recognized and protected."