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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2003 / 22 Elul, 5763

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

A radical idea | This story involves free speech, a lawsuit, a lobster, conservative college students, and some very radical ideas.

Maybe I better explain.

Today's universities are not bastions of free thinking and free speech like they used to be. A handful of studies show that the vast majority of professors are registered as Democrats. At Brown University, for instance, nearly 95% of professors are registered Democrat and only 5% Republican.

In an ideal world, that wouldn't matter. In an ideal world, one's political and religious beliefs would not inhibit his or her openness to other ideas and beliefs. But according to conservative scholar and JWR columnist David Horowitz that isn't the case on today's campuses.

Horowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, believes that universities have lost their footing. He says that American liberals, once known for supporting intellectual liberty, academic freedom and the right to express one's views, are now suppressing the ideas they disagree with - mostly conservative ideas.

There are a number of incidents in which conservative professors are denied employment or tenure. Students who argue conservative thoughts are given poor grades by their liberal teachers. Conservative publications are stolen before they can be distributed. And conservative speakers are prevented from giving talks on campus.

That takes us to the lawsuit.

In 1991, a resident assistant at Carnegie Mellon University was required to attend a "Gay and Lesbian Sensitivity Training Session." Pat Mooney participated in the lectures until his supervisor began passing out pink triangles. All resident assistants were told to wear the triangles as a sign of solidarity with gay students.

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Mooney, a devout Catholic, declined to wear the pin. He told his supervisor he would not wear it because of his religious-based opposition to the homosexual lifestyle. He was immediately suspended, then terminated the next day.

Mooney's lawyer, Peter Blume, filed a federal lawsuit against the university for violating Mooney's constitutionally-protected right of free speech and religion in the workplace (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). After five months of negative publicity, the university settled the case in Mooney's favor.

That brings us to the lobster.

In 2001, a Carnegie Mellon student named William Kofmehl III was given a $1,000 university grant to study human behavior and speech patterns. He used the money to build a three-story wood-frame shack from scrap materials, while dressed as a lobster. He vowed to remain silent during his work. He quickly became known as lobster boy.

Well, one night after drinking beer, some fraternity brothers - you're getting ahead of me here - egged the lobster shack, then broke into it. Lobster boy caught them in the act and chased them up Forbes Avenue. He eventually got a student in a head lock (head clamp?), though that student turned out to be innocent.

In any event, the fraternity brothers were eventually rounded up and the university dealt with them severely. What they did was wrong, after all - they did damage property and infringe on Lobster boy's right to express himself freely - and the fines and one-year suspension they received were deserved.

That brings us to the conservative students, a group called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). To promote free inquiry, free speech and intellectual diversity on campus, SAF has drafted the Academic Bill of Rights.

To wit: No political ideological or religious orthodoxy should be imposed on professors through the hiring, tenure or termination process.

Students should be graded on their reasoned answers and knowledge of disciplines, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

There should be a diversity of approaches and thoughts to be shared with students, rather than having professors indoctrinate students with their own opinions.

And where invited speakers are concerned, a plurality of ideas should be encouraged, not obstructed.

In other words, in a truly free and open university, all ideas would be embraced and debated. And the same passion and energy used to defend a student who dresses as a lobster should be applied to a fellow who refuses to wear a pin on his chest.

Now those are some radical ideas.

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© 2002, Tom Purcell