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What We’re Reading: March 2021

Readings this month concern lawmakers in three states who are considering free expression legislation or investigating whether their university systems need increased government involvement, as well as an op-ed arguing against statehouse interference in academic freedom issues. Our big reads are two major reports, one on the pressures faced by conservative academics and students, the other about campus expression climate.

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Campus Happenings

Viewpoint Neutrality Now! v. Regents of University of Minnesota
United States District Court for the District of Minnesota | February 1, 2021

A federal judge has ruled that plaintiffs Viewpoint Neutrality Now! may proceed with their case against the University of Minnesota. The lawsuit alleges that the university practices viewpoint discrimination in how it distributes funds among, and allocates campus space to, student organizations. The court’s ruling emphasizes that the university’s rules giving certain school officials “unbridled discretion” may be unconstitutional, writing “the discretion of the decision-maker who allocated the space in [the student union building] was about as ‘unbridled’ as unbridled discretion gets.”

LGBTQ students at BYU light up the ‘Y’ in Rainbow Colors
Courtney Tanner | Salt Lake Tribune | March 5, 2021

Students held up rainbow-colored lights on a trail above Brigham Young University. “When they returned to the trailhead, there were some police cars from the university in the parking lot. But no individuals were stopped or questioned. … The school added in a later tweet Thursday that ‘any form of public expression on university property requires prior approval.’ Still, the display had so much support that the students were also greeted on their way down by fans, who circled in their cars blasting songs, including ‘Born This Way’ and ‘I Kissed a Girl,’ from their speakers.”

200+ Faculty Across U.S. Launch Non-partisan Academic Freedom Alliance
Press Release | Academic Freedom Alliance | March 8, 2021

“More than 200 college and university faculty members across the United States joined together to launch the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), a non-profit and non-partisan organization dedicated to upholding the principle of free speech in academia. In addition to promoting solidarity, the AFA will provide legal support to certain faculty whose academic freedom is under attack. … While membership is currently by invitation only, the AFA plans to open membership to all faculty at U.S. colleges and universities in the future.”

State and Federal Policies

LSU Could Lose State Funding Over Book Discussion
Fred Childers | BRProud | February 25, 2021

A Louisiana state legislator publicly criticized a February Louisiana State University book event on The Religion of White Rage: Religious Fervor, White Workers and the Myth of Black Racial Progress. The lawmaker expressed concerns that the discussion did not present “a balanced approach” to the topic. “As chairman of the House Education Committee the lawmaker oversees many aspects of education in the state, including funding, and hints at a possible reduction of state funds for LSU.”

Montana House Bill 349
67th Montana State Legislature | February 24, 2021

The legislation prevents public universities from discriminating against “a student organization based on the student organization’s expressive activity,” and makes it illegal for administrators to expel students for their speech unless that speech is so “severe, pervasive, and subjectively and objectively offensive” as to deny “equal access to educational opportunities” to other students. The bill has passed in the Montana state House of Representatives in February is making its way through the Senate, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee on February 24.

Iowa Senate File 478
89th Iowa General Assembly | March, 8 2021

The legislation implements aspects of former President Donald Trump’s Executive Order Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping and several policy changes already approved by the state Board of Regents. Those changes include establishing a three-person free speech committee to hear allegations of First Amendment violations in student groups, making student group funding contingent on whether the group abides by the First Amendment when dealing with its members, and mandates that faculty and administrators “develop materials, programs, and procedures to ensure that [they understand the] duties of the institution regarding free expression on campus.” The changes come on the heels of controversies in the state, such as the denial of a student pro-life group, and the reprimanding of an Iowa University College of Dentistry student for questioning the administration’s view on the race and sex stereotyping executive order. After passing the Iowa state Senate on March 8, this bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

On Free Speech at Stanford
Scott Atlas, Neil Ferguson, Victor David Hanson | Stanford Review | February 23, 2021

The authors, all Hoover Institution fellows, respond to a report to the Stanford University Faculty Senate proposing a committee to investigate the relationship between Stanford and Hoover, which the report describes a “partisan think-tank.” The authors write, “The ongoing, multi-year campaign by certain faculty members against the Hoover Institution at large—which is patently ideological in its motivation—risks doing considerable collateral damage to Stanford University. At a time when universities all over the United States have become profoundly politically unrepresentative, Hoover’s status as a semi-autonomous part of the university is an asset to Stanford, not a liability.”

Supporters of Anti-Woke Laws Haven’t Thought It Through
Jeffrey Sachs | Arc Digital | March 4, 2021

The author describes an “onslaught of bills targeting public university professors, students, and school teachers in states across the country… All have a single goal: silence left-wing speech.” Focusing on legislation that restricts certain curricular content like Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project, the author argues that “other people can play that game too. And I guarantee that if these bills ever become law, the Left will deploy them against the Right just as frequently as the Right will against the Left.”

Big Reads

Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship
Eric Kaufmann | Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology | March 1, 2021

A report of eight surveys of American, Canadian, and British academics finds that “in the U.S., over a third of conservative academics and PhD students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views while 70% of conservative academics report a hostile departmental climate for their beliefs.” Depending on the question asked, “a substantial minority or an overwhelming majority [of liberal-leaning academics] engages in discrimination. …over 80% of American PhDs [are] willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars on at least one dimension.” The author summarizes his findings in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and City Journal article.

2020 Campus Expression Survey: Understanding the Campus Expression Climate
Heterodox Academy | March 2021

Heterodox Academy surveyed 1,311 college students about “how comfortable or reluctant they were to speak their views.” “Students were most reluctant to discuss controversial topics when they were the majority demographic for the issue under discussion” (for example, white students more reluctant to talk about race, straight students more reluctant to talk about sexual orientation). The most commonly feared consequence: that “other students would criticize my views as offensive,” a concern shared by 60%.