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.

Wisconsin free speech

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?

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Walker Takes on the Professoriate

Want to get elected president? If you went to middle school, you know how it’s done: Find an unpopular group and attack them. Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried to pave his path to the Oval Office by attacking lazy good-for-nothing university professors. It might backfire. Walker’s plan has a long and spotty record among conservative politicians and activists. But in general, it’s a safe bet that Walker won’t lose conservative support by standing up to the professoriate.

Get to work, nerds!

Get to work, nerds!

In his new budget proposal, Governor Walker made huge cuts to the University of Wisconsin. The university could make up the shortfall, Walker suggested, by having faculty teach more classes. In short, Walker told reporters, this was nothing more than the core conservative principle of efficiency. The cuts will make the university

do things that they traditionally have not done. Like I said, things like maybe looking at the use of faculty and staff a bit more efficiently like others have done in government in the last four years at both the state and local level.

Naturally, Walker’s proposal has raised hackles among Wisconsin’s academics. History professor John Sharpless argued that he works at least as hard as anyone else. And after all that, Sharpless complained, he will retire with a smaller salary than a Madison bus driver. Walker’s implication that faculty are a bunch of “fat cats who are getting rich off the taxpayer,” Sharpless said, amounted to nothing more than a “crock of cow poop.”

Poop aside, Walker’s attack on the professoriate joins a long tradition among conservative politicians. As I recount in my new book, throughout the twentieth century conservative leaders blamed a leftist academic elite for America’s cultural decline.

In the 1930s, for example, conservative anti-communist leader Hamilton Fish insisted that faculty at leading colleges had become public enemy number one. The faculties at schools such as Wisconsin, Fish charged, had been packed with “socialists, near Communists and Communists.”

University professors make an easy target. As we’ve explored in these pages, many conservatives assume that academic types are overwhelmingly liberal. Governor Walker may be banking on the fact that any attack on college professors will be seen as a win for conservatism.