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Martin Center column documents West Coast threat to academic freedom

Walt Gardner writes for the Martin Center about disturbing developments at UCLA.

When a political science lecturer at UCLA read to his class Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and showed clips from a documentary on racism, he found himself in hot water.

The reason: Both the letter and the documentary included the N-word.

Many students complained, which in turn pitted UCLA against the Department of Education. The latter said that targeting the instructor was a direct violation of UCLA’s own policies protecting academic freedom. But, instead of backing the instructor, UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office has launched a review, according to The Wall Street Journal.

This is a rare moment when the Department of Education is right.

Regardless of the final outcome, one would be naïve to believe that academic freedom exists in higher education in this country today. That is particularly the case in California, where the state’s constitution spells out unequivocally that the University of California “shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom.”

If diversity of thought is indeed a goal, then why is William Peris, the political science lecturer (who is white), not being supported? His own department responded that he was wrong because he did not “simply pause and reassess” his teaching pedagogy to meet his students’ needs during this “sensitive time,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

But how can students be expected to develop critical thinking if the material they are exposed to has been bowdlerized? Recognizing this, several states have passed laws requiring public universities to guarantee free speech and intellectual diversity, which they define as a “learning environment that exposes students to and encourages exploration of a variety of ideological and political perspectives,” according to a South Dakota bill signed into law in March.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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