Republican-led bills are moving forward in Colorado, Georgia and Missouri to create an "academic bill of rights" for college campuses, which sponsors say would promote intellectual diversity among faculty and protect students whose political views differ from those of their professors.
Lawmakers in Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio, California and Utah are looking into similar measures, proponents say. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced in October, has been assigned to a key education committee. The legislative proposals were prompted by a conservative movement whose supporters say college campuses are increasingly dominated by a liberal ideology.
The bills are based on an Academic Bill of Rights developed by conservative activist David Horowitz, who founded Students for Academic Freedom last summer to promote the issue. Today, the group has members on 130 campuses.
His document urges colleges to voluntarily encourage a diversity of political and religious viewpoints through avenues such as tenure decisions, reading lists for courses and campus speakers. The measures are supported by many conservative faculty and students who often view themselves as minorities on campus. But no schools have adopted such a bill.
That's why Horowitz went to lawmakers. "The best reform is self-reform," he says. But if legislators pursue the measures, "we can open discussion with administrators."
Last month, a Colorado House committee passed a version that focuses primarily on protecting students. A more comprehensive resolution is likely to be voted on by the full Senate within the month. A non-binding resolution was introduced this month in the Missouri Senate.
Such legislation is opposed by the American Association of University Professors, which represents about 45,000 faculty on 500 campuses. In a statement in December, it said mechanisms to protect students and faculty are "already in place and work well." The measures under consideration seek to "impose administrative and legislative oversight on the professional judgment of faculty," the group said.
Meanwhile, the Association for Student Judicial Affairs, a group of administrators from more than 900 campuses, is considering a proposal to urge campuses to revise conduct codes whose restrictions on speech may be vague or too broad.
A vote tally is due Monday. If the proposal is passed, a task force would be created to provide guidance to schools.
Supporters of the measure say it could bolster efforts to challenge such codes across the country. "It creates a very real possibility that in the next few years speech codes could be a thing of the past," says Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The non-profit group says it has reviewed 205 campus conduct codes and found just 20 that don't restrict free speech.
The proposal was part of an ongoing review of practices, says David Parrott, association president and dean of students at Texas A&M University. It addresses "both parts of this issue," he says. Students need "to be able to express opinions regardless of how hurtful they may be to others. We also need to deal with how offensive free speech impacts the campus."