David Beito, Ralph E. Luker, and Robert K. C. Johnson: The AHA's Double Standard on Academic Freedom

Roundup: Talking About History

Click here to read David Horowitz's response.

Has the AHA turned its back on academic freedom? In January, members present at its business meeting rejected a resolution to condemn attacks on academic freedom, whether from the right or from the left. Instead, they passed a weaker resolution that selectively condemned only threats coming from the right.

We weighed into this controversy as part of a three person "left/right" coalition for academic freedom. Our chances were slim and we knew it. Only in December did we learn that the AHA business meeting would consider a resolution to oppose David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). A leftist in the 1960s, Horowitz is now a militant activist for conservative causes. He founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles and publishes Front Page Magazine. Many of the provisions of Horowitz's ABOR seem laudable, at least on first scrutiny. It seeks to prohibit faculty from being hired on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. It requires that faculty expose students to diverse perspectives and, according to Horowitz, prohibits raising political issues in class that are outside the course subject matter. This provision opens the door for a student to file a complaint by making a charge of "indoctrination."1

Whatever the intentions of the drafters, the ABOR has already unleashed forces that seek to stifle free and open debate on campus. In Florida, for example, Representative Dennis Baxley says that his version of the ABOR would enable students to sue professors who do not teach Intelligent Design (ID). Horowitz denies that the ABOR would have this effect, but in doing so he raises additional troubling questions. His bill does not does mandate ID, he says, because it reserves special protection only for ideas within "the spectrum of significant scholarly opinion." This rationale provides little reassurance to a credible scholar who might advocate a new, and possibly controversial, approach that is not yet part of that spectrum.2

The most serious danger posed by the ABOR, however, is that it could snuff out all controversial discussion in the classroom. A campus governed by the ABOR would present professors with an impossible dilemma: either play it safe or risk administrative censure by saying something that might offend an overly sensitive student.

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