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What We’re Reading: February 2021

Our readings this month cover a wide range of controversies, from campus club formation to faculty speech. We also take you to two statehouses, where legislatures are considering very different approaches to free expression: one legislature debates requiring annual surveys about viewpoint diversity while another takes up a bill that would proscribe certain arguments and topics. Following these proposed changes in U.S. state law, we highlight a report to the British Parliament that proposes legislative and policy changes to protect campus free expression.

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Campus Happenings

President Struppa Reaffirms Chapman’s Commitment to Democracy
President Struppa Issues an Additional Statement Regarding John Eastman
Daniele Struppa | Office of the President, Chapman University | January 8 and 9, 2021

Chapman University President Daniele Struppa released two statements in response to calls and a petition for the termination of Professor John Eastman after he spoke at a Trump rally that preceded the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. “The [Faculty] Manual says that if a jury finds a faculty member to be guilty of a felony, or if they are disbarred, THEN the university can dismiss them. The university has no right to substitute itself for these formal bodies. … This is the hard part of being in a democracy. This is the very freedom that we fought to defend as terrorists attacked our Capitol Building. But this challenge is not new. Every time we are assaulted by terrorists, there are those who call for a suspension of the rules, for the elimination of fair process, for faster, quicker, more exemplary actions. I realize that my position has made me very unpopular with many of you. As much as that saddens me, it will not compel me to violate the rules under which the university operates.” Eastman has since retired from his post at Chapman. He has also been relieved of his teaching and public outreach roles at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he is a visiting scholar this academic year.

Impeachment Case Sought Against Student Senator Who Is Defending Thin Blue Line Masks
Jackson Walker | College Fix | January 25, 2021

“A petition circulating at the Rochester Institute of Technology calls for the impeachment of a student government representative following his refusal to condemn the Thin Blue Line as ‘overt racism’ …The petition, signed by 21 other members of the student government, calls for the impeachment of Jacob Custer, a student government senator and senior at RIT. …The effort to impeach Custer stems in part from conversations through the student government’s group message app where representatives discussed filing a bias report over a campus safety officer who wore a Thin Blue Line face mask.” Custer argued that an effort to prohibit the wearing of such a mask would be censorship. As of this month, public access to the petition has been restricted.

Eastern Virginia Medical School Student Government Rejects Club, Says Student Groups Should Not Promote “Opinions, Political or Otherwise”
Zach Greenberg | Foundation for Individual Rights in Education | February 3, 2021

The student government at Eastern Virginia Medical School has denied recognition to a campus chapter of national organization Students for a National Health Program, which advocates for universal healthcare. In making its decision, the student government cited its policy to disallow groups that express “opinions, political or otherwise.” But “there are numerous groups already recognized by the school, from Medical Students for Choice and the LGBT-focused Alliance Group, to the African American Student Association and the Christian Medical and Dental Association, all of which exist to, at least in part, promote views and opinions that align with their respective missions.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has called on the school to recognize SNHP.

State and Federal Policies

New Bills Target the Teaching of History
Rachel Herzog | Arkansas Democrat Gazette | January 24, 2021

“Two bills filed in the Arkansas Legislature last week would allow for state funding to be restricted from going to schools with certain courses, events or activities dealing with race, gender and other social groups.” House Bill 1218 bans public schools from offering programs or instruction that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government; promote division between, resentment of or social justice for a particular group; are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group; or advocate the solidarity of or isolation of students based on a particular characteristic.” House Bill 1231 mirrors a bill from the last Congress prohibiting funds to schools that teach using curriculum from the New York Times’ 1619 Project.

Senate Bill 264
The Florida Senate | 2021 Regular Session | February 2021

The bill instructs “the State Board of Education to require each Florida College System institution to conduct an annual assessment related to intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity,” and to publish those results every year. It also prohibits system governance from “shielding Florida College System institution students from certain speech.” The Florida Senate Committee on Appropriations has taken up consideration of this legislation. Companion bill H.B. 233 is under consideration in the House.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Justices to Consider Effect of Change in Government Policy on Cases Seeking Symbolic Damages
Amy Howe | Howe on the Court| January 8, 2021

On January 12, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Uzegbunam v. Preczewski. In 2016, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public college, was stopped by a campus police office from handing out literature outside one of the college’s two “speech zones,” which were available only at certain hours and must be reserved. When the student then reserved a speech zone and spoke there, a campus police officer told him to stop and that “he was violating the college’s ban on ‘disorderly conduct’ because his speech was disturbing others.” The student filed suit, and the college changed its policy to allow students to speak without a permit across campus. In an opinion that will be handed down later this term, the Supreme Court will decide whether the case is moot in light of the change in policy.

Law School N-Word Controversy Is More Complicated Than it Appears at First Glance
Kathryn Rubino | Above the Law | January 13, 2021

John Marshall Law School Professor Jason Kilborn became the subject of a statement from the Black Student Union and an online petition calling for him to step down from academic committees for writing an exam question in which he wrote two slurs as “n____” and “b____.” The author writes “there was a lot more going on” in this case than in most controversies over the in-class use of racial epithets. Rubino offers her analysis of the incident saying, “no one wants to be in a place where discussing the way racism shapes the legal system is off limits. Turn on the news and it’s very clear that white supremacy is far from behind us and continues to impact the law. Legal education needs to have these admittedly difficult discussions but finding the right balance is essential … Unlike other professors who have been confronted with inappropriate language, Kilborn did not trot out the academic freedom trope, or insist he knew what’s best for students or sue the law school for reverse discrimination.”

Student Protests, Past and Present
Steven Mintz | Inside Higher Ed | January 25, 2021

The author surveys the history of student activism and protest, from the 1766 Butter Rebellion at Harvard University through the 1962 Port Huron Statement to campus protests of the last decade, making the case that the student protests of recent years do not represent a new phenomenon. “At times nihilistic, intolerant and destructive, student protest often provokes a backlash. But student dissidence has, for over three centuries, been a staple of student life. If campuses are genuinely committed to producing leaders, they must recognize that dissidence, protest and activism are key contributors to the developmental process.”

Big Reads

Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom
Secretary of State for Education | UK Department of Education| February 16, 2021

In this report to Parliament, the secretary of state for education asserts that a previous consensus on the free speech and academic freedom is being challenged by “some in our society who prioritise ‘emotional safety’ over free speech, or who equate speech with violence.” The report proposes several policy changes, among them: creating a new position, a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion; adding a legal duty for higher education providers to “actively promote freedom of speech within the law”; and strengthening existing standards for free expression conduct, including by introducing legislation that allows individuals to sue for violations of their right to free speech. “We know, furthermore, that the law can only go so far and that it is ultimately for the university community to uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom as central to their purpose. That is why we have also set out here government expectations that go beyond the minimum legal duties and sets out what every university should aspire to.”

Political Reality on North Carolina Campuses: Examining Policy Debates and Forums with Diverse Viewpoints
George R. La Noue | James G. Martin Center | February 2021

The author analyzes 37 four-year North Carolina higher education institutions about how regularly they host open policy forums with divergent viewpoints, and reports on faculty partisan affiliations and student views on free speech. “Public policy debates were almost entirely absent on North Carolina campuses and where policy-related forums were present, there seems to be no consistent effort to invite panelists with different viewpoints … The lack of public policy debates or forums is the inadvertent result of many existing campus dynamics and the situation is not likely to change without some outside intervention.” He concludes with six recommendations for such interventions. These include establishing reporting requirements regarding “the number and substance of the public policy debates and forums,” and encouraging surveys on the campus climate with regard to free speech similar to the 2020 survey published by faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.