As we at FIRE often say, as dangerous as it is to tell citizens what they can and cannot say, it is far worse to tell them what they must say and, worse still—what they must believe. Unfortunately, we have far too many examples of colleges doing exactly that.
In February of 2003, Citrus College joined a list of schools that have coerced students to lobby the government for beliefs that they did not agree with. The case began when Professor Roslyn Kahn offered extra credit to students who wrote letters to President Bush protesting the war in Iraq. Several students asked that they be allowed to complete the assignment while expressing their own opinions, which in some cases meant writing letters in support of President Bush’s foreign policy. Kahn told the students that letters supporting the president would not receive credit. To make matters worse, one week later, Kahn asked her students again to write letters for extra credit. The second round of letters went to California State Senator Jack Scott protesting budget cuts for schools supported by the state.
As FIRE said at the time, "A college in which students are not allowed to disagree reasonably with their professors on fundamental issues is incapable of intellectual innovation, critical dialogue, meaningful discourse, or true scholarship."
Fortunately, in this case the college responded quickly and took the appropriate steps toward resolution. Citrus College apologized to the students, removed all grades for the assignments in question, and sent letters of apology to President Bush and Senator Scott.
However, we have seen many such examples of mandatory lobbying during our ten years of fighting on behalf of civil liberties on campus. At Washington University School of Law in 2002, the group Law Students Pro-Life was twice denied recognition by the school’s Student Bar Association (SBA), who suggested that the group’s focus was too narrow. The SBA "felt that the organization was not touching on all possible Pro Life issues" because it did not have an "anti-death penalty" position in its constitution.
At Rhode Island College’s (RIC’s) School of Social Work in 2005, a conservative master’s degree student, William Felkner, was required to lobby the government for "progressive" social changes if he wanted to receive his degree in social work policy. After he protested against such an unjust requirement, his professor retaliated by giving him failing grades. Unfortunately, the university has remained stubborn about Felkner’s punishment and has been dealing with Felkner’s lawsuit.
Defending the sanctity of conscience is one of the most important aspects of our mission. Though we succeeded at Citrus College, clearly the message has not been heeded elsewhere. Despite the fact that mandatory lobbying is so obviously in contrast with the mission of higher education as facilitating a "marketplace of ideas" and fostering genuine intellectual growth, we’ve seen it, and variations of it, a truly appalling number of times in our ten-year history.