Free speech questioned at area colleges

By Abigail Keefe
March 9, 2006

With everything from war to wiretapping in the news, political and social views are never far from most people’s minds. However, the college classroom has traditionally been a beacon of free speech and open opinions. Recent events at the University of Iowa and locally at Temple and Pennsylvania State Universities suggest this may be changing. At all three institutions, students accused faculty members and administration of ridiculing students who did not share their political and social beliefs, and in some cases engaged in outright discrimination.

Students at the University of Iowa claimed they were regularly demeaned in class for both political and religious views and that even some of their tests contained ideologically oriented questions. According to students, these events frightened them into silence preventing them from voicing their opinions in class.

At Penn State, a suit has been filed on behalf of Alfred J. Fluehr, a sophomore political science major, who claims that the university employed a strict speech-code, which was supported by a policy that encouraged students to inform administrators if other students were voicing controversial opinions that they deemed “intolerant.”

At Temple University, a graduate student, Christian M. DeJohn, also a Pennsylvania National Guardsman, has accused two tenured professors of rejecting his master’s thesis and forestalling his graduation three times because he objected to anti-war and anti-Bush statements the professors made.

Legislation is pending in both cases in Pennsylvania, and both students are being supported by a conservative Christian legal advocacy group called Alliance Defense Fund. At the University of Iowa, administrators have responded by calling a town-hall style meeting between students and faculty, where they will discuss the problem and possible solutions. However, some feel this effort is futile in light of the accusations.

A Penn State spokesman claimed that college has no such speech-code and that it fully recognizes students’ right to free speech. A Temple University official declined to comment because of the pending legislation.

This topic was recently the subject of several discussions at the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting on Jan. 25-28. Association president Carol Geary Schneider said, “Today’s students need to develop the skills of analysis and critical inquiry by exploring and evaluating competing claims and different perspectives under the guidance of experienced faculty members.”

Another serious incident that occurred involves Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado. Churchill wrote an essay in 2001 where he referred to workers in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmans,” referring to Adolf Eichman a prominent member of the Nazi Party in World War II. The reference came to light when Churchill was asked to speak in January 2005 at Hamilton College. The incident sparked the most recent debates on just how far college professors can push their academic freedom of speech.

Dr. Charlie McCormick, dean for academic affairs, stressed that there is a fine line between using controversial issues to engage healthy discussion between students, and enforcing one’s own views in a classroom. McCormick said, “Given these complications and opportunities, professors decide for themselves if, when and how to use their political positions in relevant ways in courses.”

McCormick also cited a statement that the college endorses from the American Association of University Professors that follows along the same lines. It states that professors have a certain responsibility for statements they make, but that this should not discourage proper academic discussion of controversial issues.

However, in most cases when asked Cabrini students said they had more of a problem with other students than with their professors when it came to speaking their views. Kara Schneider, a freshman English and communications major, said, “I think most of the teachers are very open to students’ views and I think personal incidents between students are more frequent.”

The students also indicated that they felt most of the professors on campus were open and respectful when it came to opposing viewpoints. Ginger Dadonna, a junior English and communication major, said, “As a whole I think the teachers encourage students to voice their opinions and are respectful of them within reasonable limits.”

Loquitur welcomes your comments on this story. Please send your comments to: . The editors will review your points each week and make corrections if warranted.

Posted to the web by Shane Evans

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Abigail Keefe

Abigail Keefe is a Cabrini College student studying communications, enjoying her time in Radnor, Pennsylvania. Abbie loves working for the school newspaper, the Loquitur, and is also passionate about everything that the communication field has to offer.

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