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Policymakers | Freedom of Expression

Bill draws students on both sides of academic-freedom issue

MORRIS NEWS SERVICE   |  April 12, 2007 by Walter C. Jones

At a hearing that essentially put political correctness on trial, students from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech told a House committee Wednesday that a law is needed to require schools to report ways to protect academic freedom.

But other students said the measure was not needed.

UGA senior Bradley Alexander of Macon told of a history professor ridiculing him on the first day of class about his political beliefs. Alexander, an honors student, complained to administrators who, he said, only warned the professor against using profanity.

Alexander told the committee he dropped the course.

“I didn’t want to leave my (grade point average) in the hands of such a partisan professor,” he said.

Alexander said he also has been insulted by other professors for his writing in the conservative publication Georgia GuardDawg.

The publication’s publisher, UGA senior David Kirby, told the members of the House Higher Education Committee that House Bill 154 would address similar problems experienced by others.

“A large number of students recognize at the University of Georgia and other Georgia campuses, there is a squelching environment,” Kirby said.

They were joined by two students whose lawsuit against Tech has already resulted in the suspension of two of the school’s practices, while other matters remain pending. Both women said they had received verbal threats, were subjected to political lectures and suffered professors’ ridicule for their ideas.

“We simply want the opportunity to express our views,” said Orit Sklar, a senior in civil engineering from Mount Vernon, NY., who is the former president of the campus Jewish society Hillel.

But Tech aerospace Ph.D. student Bjorn Cole of Tenio, Wash., told the committee that the school already promotes intellectual diversity through professors’ challenging of students to defend their thought processes.

“There’s no room for unchallenged opinion,” said Cole, a member of Young Democrats.

Representatives of the University System of Georgia promised to continue to address every student grievance. Last year there were 38 filed out of 62 million class periods taught–what system lobbyist Jim Flowers termed a very small error rate.

“It causes me to wonder where the fire is burning,” he said.

That response was met with a rebuke by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta,

“I think I have just heard the most condescending presentation to a committee that I have ever heard,” she said.

Flowers apologized and promised to continue to supply any information requested by the committee.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, would require universities and colleges to publicly report their efforts to ensure “intellectual diversity” by balancing the speakers on campus events, establishing hiring policies that protect individuals with unpopular views. It would also outlaw so-called speech codes which prohibit students from making disparaging remarks about certain groups or topics.

The bill is too late to pass this year, but the committee can tee it up for action during the next session.

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