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What We're Reading: May 2021

Our readings include four bills passed by state legislatures in the past month and a higher education report under consideration by a fifth. These bills range from proscriptions of certain curricular content to surveying campuses about viewpoint diversity. Since 2017, 26 states have passed legislation concerning free expression on campus.

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Campus Happenings

Tenured Professor Abruptly Fired After Raising Allegations of Anti-Semitic Speech by Linfield University’s President
Press Release | Foundation for Individual Rights in Education | April 29, 2021

“A university embroiled in sexual abuse scandals has abruptly fired a tenured professor who criticized the handling of those controversies and alleged that the university’s president and chair of its board of trustees made anti-Semitic comments.” In response to the professor’s allegations, posted on Twitter, administrators shut down a faculty email listserv and informed the professor that he was terminated for “[propagating] false and defamatory statements.” Administrators responded to concerns that the move violated faculty handbook protocol, saying they were not aware the handbook had been updated to afford protections for tenured employees. A trustee has resigned in protest.

A Troublesome Year Leads to President’s Firing
Greta Anderson | Inside Higher Ed | May 14, 2021

The Bureau of Indian Education removed the president of Haskell Indian Nations University, Ronald Graham, amid allegations that he suppressed student speech after he “sent a threatening ‘directive’ to Jared Nally, editor in chief of Haskell’s student newspaper, The Indian Leader. Graham ordered Nally to stop routine reporting activities and threatened to impose sanctions… Graham sent a similar ‘directive’ to Haskell faculty members in March, which said employees may not engage in ‘defaming, slanderous, damaging and inflammatory’ behavior and said ‘derogatory opinions’ about administrators are not protected by academic freedom.”

State and Federal Policies

West Virginia Senate Bill 657
West Virginia 85th Legislature | April 26, 2021

The legislation requires higher education institutions to treat student organizations equally, and mandates that public universities develop free speech education materials, clearly post speech policies, and report “a description of any barriers to, or incidents of disruption of, free expression occurring on campus” to a state commission. The law prohibits free speech zones but allows for time, place, and manner restrictions of speech that disrupts the functioning of campus. Violations may be remedied through court action against the institution and its employees in their official capacity. Gov. Jim Justice (R-WV) signed the legislation into law in April.

North Dakota Senate Bill 2030
North Dakota 67th Legislative Assembly | April 27, 2021

In order to receive funds under North Dakota’s matching grant program, higher education institutions must certify that they are unaffiliated with any person or organization that performs or promotes abortions not used to save the mother’s life. This includes “sponsoring any program producing, distributing, publishing, disseminating, endorsing, or approving materials of any type or from any organization which… do not give preference, encouragement, and support to normal childbirth.” Violators are subject to lose nearly $3 million in state funds. The bill was sent to Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) in April for his signature. The bill is widely seen as a response to a program at North Dakota State University.

Idaho House Bill 377: Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Public Education
Idaho 66th State Legislature | April 28, 2021

Legislators in Idaho have banned critical race theory curriculum, finding it not conducive to “the right of others to expression differing opinions.” Under this legislation, no public school, including higher education institutions, may offer any “course of instruction or unit of study directing or otherwise compelling students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” the notion that “individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same [group].” Gov. Brad Little (R-ID) signed the legislation in April.

Indiana House Enrolled Act 1549
Indiana 2021 General Assembly | April 29, 2021

Public schools must report on their campus’ free expression culture to the state Commission for Higher Education. The report “must include a detailed description of each state educational institution’s efforts to recognize and protect the freedom of speech and association rights” and “must include a recommendation on a survey instrument that each state educational institution shall administer to students.” Gov. Eric Holcomb (R-IN) signed the law, which was part of a larger education legislation package, in April.

A Wisconsin Roadmap to Success in Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century
Wisconsin State Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges | May 2021

A proposed report under consideration by the Senate Committee on University and Technical Colleges proposes to modify civil immunity of public university officials so that parties can sue school employees over violations of free speech rights, create an independent commission to study free expression in the state university system, and encourage training faculty and students in free speech policy.

Civics Education Snared in National Debate Over Talking About Race in Education
Laura Meckler | Washington Post | May 15, 2021

The bipartisan Civics Secures Democracy Act (S.879) would authorize Department of Education grants to higher education institutions as well as educational agencies and K-12 schools. “Purposes include teaching about history and civic institutions of the United States and teaching skills such as analyzing texts and assessing reliability of sources. Money could be used to promote values such as free speech, civil discourse, tolerance and inclusion.” Controversy about another federal civics grant program threatens to derail the bill. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John Cornyn (R-TX) are co-sponsors of the bill and spoke about the value of civics education and free expression at the December launch of BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

A Law School Grudgingly Acknowledges Academic Freedom
Jonathan Marks | Commentary Magazine | May 6, 2021

In a controversial blog post “which was not hosted on a law school website,” Professor Thomas Smith of the University of San Diego School of Law wrote that the coronavirus began in a Chinese laboratory, for which Smith was investigated by administrators for racist language. Although the university’s investigation into the incident found that Smith’s writing was protected, it still “invites readers to conclude that USD would have very much liked to punish Smith for his protected speech in deference to the university’s ‘responsibility to promote a safe, just and inclusive environment.’”

Freshman Orientation: An Introduction to Monolithic Higher Education
Chloe Folmar | Public Discourse | May 6, 2021

A college senior at a public college recalls her freshman orientation and its focus on issues of identity and diversity, during which orientation leaders left her feeling that “my religious ‘identity’ was only acceptable if I dropped those teachings that contradict the prevailing identity dogma.” However, “outspoken students (and faculty) can save the university by thoughtfully and deliberately making their voices heard.” With her peers, the author founded the Christopher Wren Journal, to encourage viewpoint diversity.