Bill Berkowitz: Campus Crusader
June 16, 2005
Before 9/11, David Horowitz attacked political correctness on college campuses across the country. These days, under the rubric of academic freedom, bands of Horowistas are waging a vigorous ground war against liberal academics
In April, during a speech in Indiana, a student threw a pie in his face; two months later, his face appeared on the cover of the Western Massachusetts-basedValley Advocate under the headline, "American Gladiator." Florida Governor Jeb Bush has called him a "fighter for freedom." He claims that he's "changed the dynamics" of the debate about "academic freedom" on college campuses across the United States, while at the same time, he accuses the media and his opponents of waging a "malicious campaign" against him.
He's David Horowitz and he's on the road again. As part of his permanent tour in support of his so-called "Academic Bill of Rights," Horowitz recently lent his support to Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley's (R-Ocala) Academic Freedom Bill of Rights. Rep. Baxley's legislation, which in late-March passed out of the House Choice and Innovation Committee by an 8-to-2 vote (the only two Democrats on the committee voted against it) was a broad assault on academic freedom. Allegedly aimed at leveling the playing field for so-called beleaguered conservatives on the state's campuses, the devil was clearly in the details.
According to The Florida Alligator, in addition to guaranteeing that students would "not be punished for professing beliefs with which their professors disagree," the bill would have advised professors "to teach alternative 'serious academic theories' that may disagree with their personal views."
"Some professors say, 'Evolution is a fact. I don't want to hear about Intelligent Design (a creationist theory), and if you don't like it, there's the door,'" Rep. Baxley maintained.
A Florida university professor countered Baxley's claims:
"For a biologist for whom evolution is no more a theory than is the law of gravity, to have to present 'alternative' religiously-oriented or inspired views would be contrary to his very understanding of the scientific method. That would be comparable to Galileo being forced to recant his scientific observations that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the opposite as ordained by the Church."
According to a legislative staff analysis of the bill, students who felt their views were disrespected in the classroom or thought they were singled out for "public ridicule" by their professors would have the right to sue them and the university.
During the debate over the Baxley bill, opponents argued that allowing students to sue their professors would create chaos in the classroom and force judges to determine what might or might not be academically appropriate. "This is a horrible step," Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said. "Universities will have to hire lawyers so our curricula can be decided by judges in courtrooms. Professors might have to pay court costs -- even if they win -- from their own pockets. This is not an innocent piece of legislation."
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Rep. Baxley decided to join Horowitz's crusade after he "attended a conservative conference in St. Louis last summer where Horowitz spoke about academic freedom. The message struck a chord [and] … after talking to Horowitz," he introduced his bill in the Florida Legislature.
While Rep. Baxley's bill ultimately failed to garner enough support this legislative session, its introduction signaled the beginning of a battle in Florida that could go on for a number of years and eventually result in a future law.
In addition to Florida, 13 other states have introduced some type of "Academic Freedom" legislation: California legislators "considered an academic bill of rights [that contained] an eight-point credo designed to increase political diversity in the classroom," the St. Petersburg Times reported. "The same declaration was debated in Maine … Congress also is considering something similar." In early June, the Christian Science Monitor reported that "Four state universities in Colorado … [had] adopted the principles under legislative pressure in 2004." In Minnesota, right wing state senator Michelle Bachman, a vocal opponent of gay rights, introduced two bills modeled on Horowitz's complaints, one targeted at state colleges and universities and one at state high schools.
The creator of the Academic Bill of Rights movement is David Horowitz, the former left-winger who is a well-funded, media-savvy, right wing activist/provocateur. Leading the charge is Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom (SFAF)-- a group he founded in 2003. Three people -- none of whom are students -- run the operation of its Washington, DC,-based office, the St. Petersburg Times' Anita Kumar reported in late May. The organization "has encountered fierce opposition from faculty and administrators, who accuse outsiders of trying to dictate the number of Republican and Democratic professors on campus."
Kumar described the scene:
In a tiny, cramped room tucked in the National Hispanic Medical Association on K Street near the White House are the D.C. offices, such as they are, of Students for Academic Freedom. From here, 26-year-old Sara Dogan rallies college students and helps them organize for the fight ahead.
Booklets instructing students on the campaign are piled on a shelf, alongside a stack of the academic bill of rights. Copies of Horowitz's books line another shelf.
As national campus director for Students for Academic Freedom, Dogan has helped launch 150 campus chapters in almost every state, though some have only one or two students. The University of Florida, Florida State University and Florida International University have chapters. The University of North Florida is starting one, too.
"I've changed the dynamics," Horowitz, who also runs the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture (CSPC - website), which publishes the online journal, Frontpagemag.com, told Kumar. "I've introduced a game plan here that is effective. This will work."
Then, in classic Horowitz-Speak, he told Kumar that the media and his opponents were waging a "malicious campaign" against him. "What you get is lies, lies, lies," he said. "I didn't think it would be quite this vitriolic and dishonest."
(For more on Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights, see "What's Not To Like About The Academic Bill of Rights" by Dr. Graham Larkin.)
Students for Academic Freedom is not only involved with lobbying state legislatures; on some campuses, they and/or similarly minded groups, have launched an all-out assault on liberal professors, employing classic McCarthyite tactics. Veteran journalist David Bacon recently reported that conservative students at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California, who were supporting a California version of a Student Bill of Rights, resorted to some pretty smarmy and underhanded tactics. They issued "leaflets quoting Section 51530 of the [California] Education Code," and then "anonymously posted [them] on the doors of ten faculty members" at the College. The leaflet quoted the code:
"No teacher ... shall advocate or teach communism with the intent to indoctrinate, inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism." Such "advocacy," the statute says, means teaching "for the purpose of undermining patriotism for, and the belief in, the government of the United States and of this state."
"Fifty years ago," Bacon wrote, "when left-wing teachers were hounded out of the state's school system during the cold war, this code section was rushed through the legislature to make it legal."
Santa Rosa Junior College Republicans claimed responsibility for the action: "We did this because we believe certain instructors at SRJC are in violation of California state law," the group's press released stated. At the same time, a news release appeared on the website of California College Republicans headlined "Operation 'Red Scare.'" The organization's chair, Michael Davidson, told reporter John Gorenfeld "a lot of the college professors are leftovers from the Seventies - and Communist sympathizers."
In a letter published in the Oak Leaf, the campus newspaper, Molly McPherson, the president of the SRJC College Republicans, wrote that the professors she "targeted were not selected at random … There have even been accounts of JC teachers openly advocating Communist and Marxist theories… [which have] been outlawed in the classrooms of a country with the strongest free speech rights in the world."
As Bacon pointed out, when campus Republicans were unable to "document the massive teaching of communism at the junior college, they retreated to general complaints of 'leftist bias' by faculty members. Evidence to support charges of biased teaching seemed just as scarce. In a forum discussing the flyer, student trustee Nick Caston pointed out, 'I have been on the Board of Review (the last step of the grievance process) for three years and have never heard a complaint about bias in the class room.'"
Veteran SRJC professor Marty Bennett, one of the instructors targeted by the College Republicans told Bacon that he never "talked with any of the students who were involved in this." Bennett, who acknowledges teaching labor history in his social sciences classes, thought that he was "identified in the community as someone involved in the labor movement [and] … that's probably why I was chosen."
The conservative student's campaign aimed to coincide with the introduction of SB5 by Sen. Bill Morrow, R-San Juan Capistrano. Morrow's bill, which said that "faculty shall not use their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination," failed to pass the Senate Education Committee on April 20.
In the beginning…
Not only has David Horowitz garnered significant financial support from a host of conservative foundations (see the list of 137 grants totaling more than $13 million the Center has received since 1989, including nearly $1 million in 2003), he has also received intellectual support from conservative critics funded by the same philanthropies. In the autumn 2001 issue of City Journal -- a quarterly published by The Manhattan Institute (website) , a conservative think tank, Roger Kimball, a longtime conservative critic, waxed effusively about the intrepid efforts by both David Horowitz, and the Independent Women's Forum (website.)
At the time of Kimball's essay, Horowitz and the IWF had purchased advertisements in college newspapers to promote their political agendas.
Those ads -- attacking the Reparations for African Americans campaign, and debunking "feminist myths" about date rape, domestic violence and pay inequity, respectively -- stirred-up a hornet's nest on a number of campuses. They also gained national media coverage, and essentially was one of the first substantial shots taken by conservative groups against liberal academics in several decades.
Horowitz's advertisement was particularly clever. Headlined "10 Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Are a Bad Idea for Blacks and Racist, Too," it became the centerpiece of Horowitz's CSPC campaign against reparations for African Americans, an issue that at the time was beginning to gain some traction in academic circles.
Kimball, who is the managing editor of The New Criterion (website) -- a publication that claims to be "a staunch defender of the values of high culture," praised the Horowitz advertisement for being "carefully reasoned and deliberately provocative." He was particularly enthusiastic over Reason Number 8, which read in part: "What about the 'reparations' to blacks that have already been paid? Since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the advent of the Great Society in 1965, trillions of dollars in transfer payments have been made to African-Americans, in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences (in contracts, job placements and educational admissions)--all under the rationale of redressing historical racial grievances."
Taking a page from Horowitz's playbook, the Independent Women's Forum prepared its own controversial advertisement. The ad, which was entitled "the 10 most common feminist myths," was done "to tweak the noses of the college Sisterhood," Kimball claimed. "Are you tired of male-bashing and victimology?" the ad asked. "Have you had your fill of feminist 'Ms./Information'? Have you been misled by factually challenged professors?"
The IWF ad, Kimball wrote, "debunked with special authority such dogmas as the epidemic of 'date rape' (wildly exaggerated - it says), the inequity in pay between men and women (ditto), and the prevalence of domestic violence perpetrated by males (ditto)."
According to Kimball, "These saucy campaigns artfully flush into the open the intolerance behind the 'progressive' pieties that suffocate debate on campuses. Some dismiss the ads as 'pranks.' In fact, they're more like the old Voice of America broadcasts spreading truth behind the Iron Curtain. No wonder they make the academic cadres so mad."
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with questions surfacing about the nature of the terrorist attacks, Horowitz went back to the campuses and launched a preemptive strike against dissent. His new advertisements warned students "not to join an 'antiwar' effort against America's coming battle with international terrorism," suggesting that they "think again" before making such a move.
As is his wont, Horowitz's threat was aimed at setting the guidelines for debate over President Bush's permanent war against terrorism. "There is a difference between honest dissent and malevolent hate, between criticism of national policy and sabotage of the nation's defenses," Horowitz pointed out. He also confessed to having been part of a movement of "thousands of other New Leftists," in the sixties that opposed the war in Vietnam and had "crossed the line between dissent and actual treason."
Leaving aside Kimball's rather nostalgic view of the "old" Voice of America broadcasting "truth" behind the Iron Curtain, his column was early to link the work of Horowitz with the Independent Women's Forum, which Media Transparency's profile describes as "neither Independent nor a Forum. Not independent because it is largely funded by the conservative movement. Not a forum because it merely serves up women who mouth the conservative movement party line."
Meanwhile, in Florida, David Horowitz's local dance partner, Rep. Dennis Baxley appears to see himself as a modern day Daniel fighting the lions of liberal academia. During the debate over his legislation, Baxley claimed he was smeared by "leftists" and called a McCarthyist by "critics [that] ridicule me for daring to stand up for students and faculty." Like the late Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, whose name has become synonymous with the hurling of phony accusations and who claimed to have lists of known communists in the US government, Rep. Baxley claimed that "he had a list of students who were discriminated against by professors, but refused to reveal names because he felt they would be persecuted," the St. Petersburg Times reported.