On the Ground at Metropolitan State College
September 19, 2008
In the fall, I spend a lot of time traveling and speaking at different colleges across the country about student and faculty rights. Yesterday, I just happened to be speaking at Metropolitan State College of Denver when the imbroglio involving a professor's writing assignment hit national news. In fact, I was actually on a break between a lecture on staff and faculty rights and my speech to the student body when my inbox was suddenly abuzz with reports of an English professor's assignment in which he asked his students to write essays critical of what he termed the "fairy tale" portrayal of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's candidacy for Vice President of the United States.
I must admit, my initial reaction was selfish. It's always fun to have a meaty and topical subject to sort through with students, particularly when the controversy in question involves their own school. So here's my analysis:
FIRE is an organization devoted to student and faculty rights. Can a professor give a writing assignment to his students in which he asks them to advocate a particular point of view? The answer to this is "in most cases, yes." As any of FIRE's lawyers on staff will tell you, being asked to defend and articulate opinions with which one might not agree is practically all one does in law school.
I say "in most cases" because FIRE has certainly seen situations where otherwise reasonable assignments are transformed into abuses of power for partisan purposes. As Robert noted yesterday: "In some cases, professors have crossed the line into coercing speech by turning these assignments into public advocacy pieces, as happened at California's Citrus College in 2003 and at Rhode Island College in 2005." I strongly recommend readers investigate both of these cases, in which students were required to publicly advocate or lobby for specific political beliefs, whether they agreed with them or not. Forcing students to publicly advocate for a point of view they don't agree with is a long way from simply asking them to argue for a particular point of view in class. That's why the situations at Citrus College and Rhode Island College were serious abuses of power on the part of the professors involved. But simply requiring students to take a particular point of view in a writing assignment is not the same thing.
That does not mean the public and, for that matter, Metropolitan State College and the students in the class have no reason to object. Whether or not a decision to give a politically slanted assignment (if that is in fact what was happening in this instance) is good pedagogy is, of course, an issue that will spark public and critical discussion. But, again, FIRE is in the business of defending the rights of students and faculty, and it is for others to decide and debate the finer points of good pedagogy. In fact, FIRE welcomes heated discussions on compelling topics. Civil liberties folks like us always do.
For those who thought that this case was endemic of campus political bias, the case has a happy ending: Metropolitan State College spokeswoman Cathy Lucas told Fox News that "After hearing from a student that some in the class were uncomfortable with the assignment, Hallam expanded it to include commentary on Barack Obama, John McCain and Joe Biden...."
Disturbingly, however, Fox also reported that Hallam "is being investigated by the college for bias, bullying and harassment" in connection with the assignment. Nothing I heard on campus indicated that Professor Hallam had actually violated anyone's rights, and—as FIRE supporters well know—allegations of "harassment" have been used time and again to punish students and faculty members with unpopular, politically incorrect, or otherwise "offensive" opinions. The allegation of "bias" is perhaps even more concerning, since the First Amendment permits no exception for "biased" speech, though many public colleges and universities seem to believe otherwise.
I certainly hope that Metropolitan State does not resolve this case in such a way that legitimizes the notion that "harassment" is anything students find objectionable or that speech can be restricted simply because it reflects "bias" on the part of the speaker. FIRE will be keeping a close eye on how Metropolitan State—a public university bound to uphold the guarantees of the First Amendment—deals with this matter going forward.