Glendora, CA—In rapid response to the intervention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the administration of Citrus College (California) has undone a terrible injustice—and has avoided a moral and legal nightmare. A Citrus College professor had compelled undergraduate students to write anti-war letters to President George W. Bush—penalizing the grades of students who dissented or refused to send the letters. The Citrus College administration, working closely with FIRE, resolved the situation. “When fully informed of a frightening violation of freedom of conscience, the college administration responded swiftly and boldly to restore liberty and to undo the harm already done,” said Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE’s chief executive officer.
FIRE wrote to Citrus College President Louis Zellers on March 4 to alert him that FIRE had been contacted by students in Professor Rosalyn Kahn’s Speech 106 class, a required course at the public college. FIRE received compelling documentation that Kahn had required students, to achieve full credit, to write letters to President George W. Bush “demanding” that he not go to war with Iraq. Several students requested that they be allowed to complete the assignment by expressing their own opinions, which would mean, in some cases, writing letters in support of President Bush’s foreign policy. Kahn told the students that letters supporting the president would not be acceptable and would not receive credit. Several students refused to turn in the assignment and were penalized.
One week later, Kahn again required students to write letters with a specific political viewpoint, this time to California State Senator Jack Scott. Professor Kahn collected the letters from the class and personally delivered them to Scott. The Senator’s office told FIRE that the letters were not solicited.
“While Professor Kahn is free to hold and espouse her views on appropriate matters of public concern, it is, of course, absolutely impermissible for her or any professor to coerce students to share her political orthodoxies. This was an unconscionable abuse of classroom power,” said Halvorssen.
After Chris Stevens, a student in Speech 106, contacted FIRE and requested assistance, supported by other members of the class, Halvorssen reminded Citrus College that a public college, or, indeed, any college that honors academic freedom, may not stipulate a commitment to any set of beliefs as a condition of participation in the classroom. This is true no matter what the ideology in question. Classroom assignments that mandate values and commitment to certain beliefs create a loyalty oath that is injurious to intellectual freedom. “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,” said Halvorssen.
FIRE had constructive conversations with Associate Dean Samuel Lee. Dean Lee understood the issues involved and quickly addressed FIRE’s concerns.
In a letter to FIRE, received today, the College agreed to resolve the matter by appropriately sanctioning the professor, apologizing to and reassuring the students in Speech 106 that their grades would not be affected by these assignments, and ensuring this situation would not occur again at Citrus College. Additionally, President Zellers will send letters to both President George W. Bush and to State Senator Jack Scott apologizing for this violation of freedom of speech and formally withdrawing the sham letters.
Stevens was extremely heartened by the outcome. “This is tremendous,” he said; “In three days, FIRE undid four awful weeks of abusive power. I am so grateful to FIRE for coming to our rescue.”
Halvorssen praised President Zellers for his defense of basic constitutional liberties. “It is a great day for freedom of conscience and a great day for Citrus College. It is heartening to find a college president who defends the principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.” Halvorssen added, “FIRE is committed to an academic world in which free speech and freedom of conscience are rights independent of the politics and ideologies of the individuals involved. It is very heartening when such an issue can be decided on behalf of liberty by a college itself, without recourse to the courts.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Citrus College and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Samuel T. Lee, Citrus College: 626-914-8855;