Three months ago, hundreds of students and faculty jammed a college campus in downtown Denver and listened to David Horowitz talk about protecting Republicans and conservatives from retaliation.
Supporters including Senate President John Andrews, R-Centennial, said they were worried about "academic freedom" at Colorado colleges and universities. Conservative students complained about liberal professors who ridiculed their beliefs, gave them bad grades and assigned lopsided reading lists. There was talk of making Horowitz’s "Academic Bill of Rights" part of Colorado law.
GOP lawmakers in Colorado seem to be distancing themselves from Horowitz’s movement, though they are still considering ways to protect students from what they see as a liberal bias on college campuses.
Andrews said he is working on a bill that would require universities to tell students about their policies against academic discrimination.
"We give colleges and universities $700 million in taxpayer money and we need to make sure student rights are well understood and protected," he said.
Andrews said he still believes in the principles contained in Horowitz’s proposal but thinks it would be difficult to make it law. He said universities already have discrimination policies in place, even if they are not always enforced.
Horowitz called Andrews’ idea a good first step and praised him for not being intimidated by "unscrupulous attacks" from critics.
"The waters there have been muddied. There has been a lot of controversy over false issues – like requiring the hiring of Republicans," Horowitz said. "The Bill of Rights forbids hiring based on your beliefs."
Horowitz said he is working to get 10 states to enact his Bill of Rights by June, but did not say which ones because he fears similar backlashes.
A civil liberties group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the spread of campus "speech codes" and "free speech zones," which limit protests to a specific place, are some of the biggest threats to healthy debate in higher education.
Greg Lukianoff, legal and public advocacy director for the Philadelphia-based foundation, said students and professors who are conservative or religious are more likely to be censored at the moment because of the anti-war mood on many campuses.
But he said he worries legislation designed to end censorship could end up silencing more people.
"The First Amendment is not a shield from being criticized for either side of the debate," he said. "Both sides need to realize that they don’t have a right not to be offended and that a part of meaningful debate and intellectual innovation is to have your deepest beliefs challenged.
"In fact, if your deepest beliefs aren’t challenged in college, you should ask for your money back."
At the traditionally liberal University of Colorado – where College Republicans have launched a Web site to collect complaints of liberal bias – a conservative professor says students have complained to him about getting bad grades because of their views.
Political science professor Michael Kanner said the university should take action if there is evidence of grade discrimination. But he said he doesn’t think anything should be done about students who simply feel uneasy with their professors.
"There’s no constitutional right to feel comfortable. If that’s all this turns out to be, then it’s just one of those ‘We’re sorry, that’s life’ kind of things," Kanner said.
The fact that Horowitz’s proposal didn’t take hold in Colorado may make other states think twice before considering similar measures, American Association of University Professors spokesman Jonathan Knight said.
The group opposes the measure, in part because it ignores what it sees as a bigger problem at universities – a lack of money.
"The notion of legislatures legislating on intellectual diversity while the institutions they are saying need to be improved are facing severe financial shortages is either ironic or a very bad joke," Knight said.
Another proposal dealing with academic freedom is working its way through the Colorado House, Rep. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said his bill has nothing to do with Horowitz’s movement.
The nonbinding resolution would condemn violations of free speech on college campuses, including making students attend diversity training and denying their right to speak out against "certain sexual behaviors" including homosexuality.
University of Colorado president Betsy Hoffman said she believes diversity training is needed to help students from different backgrounds learn how to live and work together.
"We require students to study a lot of things they don’t want to," she said.