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Colorado educators worry academic bill of rights hurts free speech

By The Associated Press
09.10.04

DENVER — A university president and a Democratic state lawmaker said rules put in place this year to protect conservative views on Colorado campuses have led to death threats against professors and a harmful effect on free speech.

Republican lawmakers responded that conservative students were still being harassed and more needed to be done.

A handful of college officials and students went before the Legislature's Joint Education Committee yesterday to report on efforts to enforce the Academic Bill of Rights. All state-funded colleges adopted the policy this year under pressure from Republican lawmakers.

Professors at Metropolitan State College in Denver are concerned that some topics may be off-limits in the classroom, interim president Ray Kieft told lawmakers. He cited discussions of stem-cell research, a lightning-rod issue for some Republicans who claim it amounts to abortion.

Kieft said death threats against a Metro State political science professor have "sent a real chill across the campus." The professor, Oneida Meranto, said in March she was threatened after a student filed a complaint against her and told lawmakers he had asked to drop her class because she was biased against conservatives.

Meranto responded publicly that the student was failing, prompting the student to accuse her of violating his privacy rights. School officials said the threats originated off campus, and the FBI has said it was investigating.

Sen. John Andrews, R-Centennial, a committee member, pointed to three new complaints aired by students at the meeting as evidence that schools need to enforce the policy more strictly.

University of Colorado law student Mario Nicholas said a professor called him a Nazi after Nicholas complained when the professor told the class that "the 'R' in Republican stands for racist." The professor was chastised by the dean but not suspended.

Metro State student William Pierce said he filed a grievance after a professor accused him of spying on the class for Republicans intent on enforcing the new policy.

Colorado State student Heather Schmidt, an Army veteran whose husband is serving in Iraq, said one of her professors criticized former President Reagan and drew a caricature of President Bush. She said when she complained, she was told to find another class.

Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said he called the professor involved in that complaint and was told he had been forced out of the classroom by death threats.

"He said he sleeps with a shotgun under his bed," Gordon told the panel. The professor did not return a call from the Associated Press.

Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, said professors who violate the rules should be suspended.

"It seems to me you need to take swift action," she told the university presidents.

Larry Penley, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, CU President Elizabeth Hoffman and University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton told legislators they were enforcing the policy.

Colleges agreed to implement a stripped-down version of the policy after lawmakers killed a measure that would have required them to allow students to file grievances against professors if they felt they were being harassed for their political or religious beliefs.


Previous
Colorado legislators kill anti-diversity training measure
Resolution was an effort to remind colleges of students' First Amendment right 'to speak disapprovingly of certain sexual behaviors' amid debate over mandatory training. 04.08.04

Related

Free-speech compromise reached on Ohio academic freedom

Legislature would defer passing academic 'bill of rights' in favor of resolution by state higher ed council. 09.15.05

Academic freedom

Hate speech & campus speech codes

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