PHILADELPHIA, PA—Six months after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) helped slay a manifestly unconstitutional loyalty oath at Monterey Peninsula College in California, FIRE returned to overturn a similar threat to authentic liberty and privacy at Bucks County Community College (BCCC) in Newtown, Pennsylvania. The threat had been called to FIRE’s attention by a professor at the college. Alan Charles Kors, President of FIRE, commented: “Individual liberty, for all, is the deepest American aspiration. It is the great cause of our time. We are privileged to have been at the side of its intrepid ally at BCCC.”
In December 2000, Professor of Sociology Myles Kelleher contacted FIRE after discovering that applicants for new faculty (and other) positions at BCCC would be required to “provide a brief statement of your commitment to diversity and how this commitment is demonstrated in your work,” and to “certify” their understanding that “any false or misleading statement on this application constitutes sufficient grounds for dismissal.”
On December 7, 2000, FIRE’s Executive Director, Thor Halvorssen, wrote to President James J. Linksz to express “our profound, grave, and determined concern about the threat to academic and healthy intellectual freedom” posed by BCCC’s inquisition into matters of conscience. Without questioning in any manner BCCC’s “right to evaluate a candidate with broad discretion, and to consider any evidence of violation of statutory and constitutional obligations toward legal equality in someone’s past performance,” FIRE observed that “it is not the business of a public university to inquire into an applicant’s private views of—let alone an applicant’s ‘commitment’ to—matters of politics, race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, or, indeed, of any other category that you include in ‘diversity.'” He explained that such a “loyalty oath” was as objectionable as a demand in the 1950s “for a statement from an applicant about his or her ‘commitment to patriotism’ or . . . ‘Americanism.'” “Such inquisitorial abuse of authority,” Halvorssen wrote, “was beyond the pale then; it is beyond the pale now.”
FIRE also reminded President Linksz of BCCC’s constitutional obligations as a public college, referring him to, among other cases, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), in which the Supreme Court had ruled: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith [in it].” FIRE urged BCCC to honor “the presumed goals of that questionnaire,” instead, “by enforcing the anti-discrimination statutes and rulings that govern its behavior” and by pursuing issues of diversity “in the infinitely more appropriate domain of collegial debate, persuasion, and the voluntary choices of free minds in the free universities of a free society.” Halvorssen concluded: “We are ready to discuss this issue with you at any length that you desire, and we hope that this disturbing matter can be resolved quietly and by common, collegial principles. If that resolution requires full public exposure and litigation, however, FIRE will assist interested parties in their pursuit of academic freedom, respect for conscience, and the rights of privacy, political pluralism, and reasoned dissent at BCCC.”
When Linksz did not reply to FIRE’s letter, FIRE both appealed to the court of public and moral opinion and wrote to BCCC’s Board of Trustees and its major donors. The story became the focus of local and national media attention. On February 12, Linksz told one newspaper that BCCC would not retract the question. On February 21, he informed a national weekly that he “was only following orders from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.” On February 22, he told another paper that the criticism came from “alarmists with their own political agenda.” National attention continued to mount, however, and on February 23, Linksz told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he “was not opposing [FIRE’s] efforts” and that “they may still be right . . . [and] find support.” On March 8, Larry Newman, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of BCCC, tersely announced to the Board that the question had been removed from BCCC’s faculty employment application.
Halvorssen noted: “As in the case of FIRE’s recent elimination of Monterey Peninsula College’s requirement that all classes address ‘race, class and gender,’ the victory at BCCC demonstrates that one professor, linked to public opinion by national exposure, can hold the line against the further transformation of higher public education into private ideological fiefdoms.” He added: “Justice Brandeis was correct when he observed that ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’ A bit of FIRE also can go a long way.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our campuses. FIRE’s website, www.thefire.org, provides documentation of and links to FIRE’s letter to President Linksz and the complete texts of media coverage of the BCCC affair. The website explains FIRE’s views of the assault on liberty and dignity in higher education.
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
Myles Kelleher, Professor of Sociology: 215-968-8278;
James J. Linksz, President, BCCC: 215-968-8221;