Why Campus Free Speech Laws Won’t Free Campus Speech

We’ve been down this road before. When conservative lawmakers hope to protect the right of conservative speakers on college campuses these days, they rehash a tactic from the 1920s evolution/creation battles.

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Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro speaks freely at the University of Wisconsin.

Will it work this time? Not a chance. Why not? I lay out my argument this morning at History News Network. Click on over and check it out.

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Free Speech Firestorm Jumps the Creationist Gap

Everyone supports free speech. But these days, academic “free speech” has become the latest creationist tactic to wedge creation-friendly science into schools. Mostly, that has been a K-12 effort, but it seems like creationist tactics have piggybacked their way into higher education.

The latest incarnation comes from the University of Wisconsin. Conservative lawmakers have promoted a bill to protect free speech on campus. To be fair, the conservatives who push Wisconsin’s bill insist that it has nothing to do with classroom topics, creationist or otherwise. The target, they insist, are leftist radicals who won’t allow conservative speakers on campus.

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Let creationism ring?!!?!???

In Wisconsin’s case, the headline-grabbing incident was a talk by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. In November 2016, Shapiro was shouted down for about twenty minutes before campus police kicked out the shouting protesters. Conservative lawmakers hope their bill will guarantee a balanced ideological environment; an infusion of conservative ideas on campus. The bill is patterned after other campus free-speech bills, inspired by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

To this reporter, though, it seems like the current higher-ed furor over free speech has leaped the curricular gap. Here’s what I worry about: Campus free-speech efforts will be used to protect the “free speech” of creationists and other conservative folks locked out of mainstream science. Attempts to box out creationist ideas will be stymied.

Full disclosure: I can’t even pretend to be neutral on this one. I love my alma mater and I quake at the notion that lawmakers would pass any sort of law demanding or prohibiting certain forms of teaching. It’s not just an intellectual or political thing, either. If big granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health think UW is shackled by creationist science, they will be less likely to fund UW-based projects. Alumni will shy away from sending in donations. Students will be less likely to bring their tuition dollars. In short, the possible negative ramifications of a move like this could be huge.

But at this point, my dear SAGLRROILYBYGTH, you may be asking yourself a smart question: What does this conservative political move to welcome conservative speakers have to do with creationism?

First, the background: For years now, creationists have pushed for “academic freedom” bills in K-12 schools. The idea is to protect teachers and students from harassment or discrimination if they choose to voice their creationist ideas. Seattle’s Intelligent-Design mavens at Discovery Institute, for example, have offered the following language in their “academic-freedom” petition:

Teachers should be protected from being fired, harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for objectively presenting the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory. Students should be protected from being harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for expressing their views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory in an appropriate manner.

The idea is to mandate the intellectual rights of creationists in K-12 schools, to protect teachers and students from any sort of negative reaction to their zombie science. If successful, these bills put science education in a legal gray area. A school can’t insist on teaching mainstream science. Teachers can’t insist that students learn it.

We’ve seen glimmers of this sort of creationist “academic freedom” dispute in higher ed, too. Remember Eric Hedin at Ball State? He earned tenure after facing charges of preaching intelligent design. Or Mark Armitage at Cal State Northridge? He successfully sued after facing discrimination for his creationist publications.

The Wisconsin bill, however, introduces a new element to these creationist “academic freedom” battles in higher education. According to Madison’s Capital Times, the bill’s sponsor is a convinced young-earth creationist. His bill would create a Council on Free Expression. Creationist students who feel persecuted could file complaints with this Council.

In the give-and-take in the Wisconsin legislature, skeptical Representative Terese Berceau questioned Jesse Kremer, the bill’s sponsor, on this question. What if, Berceau asked, a student in a geology class argued that the earth was only 6,000 years old?

“Is it okay for the professor to tell them they’re wrong?” Berceau asked during the lengthy session on May 11.

“The earth is 6,000 years old,” Kremer offered.  “That’s a fact.”

Representative Kremer insisted the new law would not affect classroom discussions. But he affirmed that a creationist student—any student—who felt discriminated against could take his or her complaint to the Council on Free Expression.

Again, I know I’m not thinking clearly and calmly on this one. I’m nervous about the possible ramifications of Kremer’s bill and I’m likely to make creationist mountains out of conservative molehills.

Am I being overly paranoid? Or will conservative free-speech bills end up giving creationist students in college the ability to jam up the works of mainstream science classes? Will efforts to set up an intellectual preserve for conservative ideas on campus end up giving creationists more control over college classes? And, most important, will that new creationist influence stymie the mainstream science that usually goes on in Madison?