When a Missouri State University professor asked Emily Brooker to sign a letter lobbying for gay adoption rights, she refused.
Now, a House committee has backed a bill named in Brooker’s honor that would require the state’s colleges and universities to file annual reports on intellectual diversity.
The bill, by Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, encourages universities to take steps to foster academic freedom and a free exchange of ideas without bias against political or religious views.
“Students, parents and educators have a right to expect instruction and not indoctrination,” Cunningham told a committee. “It’s as simple as that.”
The House Higher Education Committee approved the bill by a 5-3 partisan vote late Monday, after a nearly four-hour hearing in which students and professors disagreed over whether the measure deals with a real or fabricated threat to free expression.
“The bill addresses a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Frank Schmidt, a University of Missouri-Columbia biologist and member of the Intercampus Faculty Council.
Schmidt told the committee that all viewpoints at the university are respected. He cited the fact that both conservative political pundits and controversial artists are invited to speak, while religious expression thrives.
“Christianity is alive and well on campus, judging only from the T-shirts in my class,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt and a handful of students said the bill would invite legislators to trample academic freedom and open the door to legislative oversight of what’s taught at public universities.
But supporters of the bill say it’s far too modest a proposal to have that effect.
They say the measure simply requires an annual report to be filed on how campuses are creating a learning environment that “exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, religious and other perspectives.”
The bill then lists nearly a dozen suggested ways in which colleges may increase intellectual diversity, such as altering hiring practices or tracking grievances against professors.
Brooker, who has since graduated from Missouri State, said she lacked any recourse when she had a disagreement with her professor over an assignment on gay foster parents’ rights.
Brooker told the committee that she agreed to research the topic and write a paper on it, despite her religious opposition to gay foster parenting. But she said she refused to sign her name to a letter lobbying state legislators on the topic.
Brooker was awarded an out-of-court settlement last year, and her professor was temporarily given nonteaching duties.
One of Brooker’s lawyers said the case is one of thousands unreported nationwide.
“It is not an isolated incident but a systematic depravation of free-speech rights,” said David French of the Alliance Defense Fund, which takes on intellectual diversity cases.
That claim was supported Monday by a poll prepared by the American Council on Trustees and Alumni, a group formerly headed by Lynne Cheney.
The poll of 652 students at Missouri State and the University of Missouri suggested that most students on the campuses believe their professors use the classroom to promote their own political views and present only one side of controversial topics.
Critics of the poll point out that the results were different for other questions in the poll. For example, more than two-thirds of respondents disagreed that professors are hostile to certain political views.
Officials from several of the state’s colleges and universities attended the hearing Monday. Of them, only one opted to testify.
John Black, general counsel for Missouri State, told the committee the school has responded well to the Brooker incident. But he left it to legislators to decide whether a new law is also needed.
“We believe we addressed the problem when it came to our attention,” he said. “The Missouri Legislature will have to determine whether we did it well.”