There is a good article in this morning’s USA Today regarding the Alliance Defense Fund’s lawsuit against Missouri State. I have been giving several interviews about the case, and I am consistently asked two things: (1) are you saying that students can refuse assignments?; and (2) is this case “just” an academic-freedom dispute, or is it more than that?
First — to clear up any confusion — this is not a case about a student who is merely asked to play “devil’s advocate” in a classroom exercise. Of course teachers can ask you to debate and discuss various ideas from all sides of a dispute. During law school, several of my professors presented hypothetical cases and then asked us to write the majority opinion and the dissent in the case. The plaintiff, Emily Brooker, was not merely asked to think about all sides of an issue or argue different sides in class, she was asked to make an ideological argument in a contentious cultural issue to the state government. Moreover, she was supposed to argue for a position that violated her religious beliefs.
And this gets us to the real heart of the case: the magnitude of the constitutional violation. This is not “just” an academic-freedom dispute but instead represents an attempt by an academic department to pass into the “final frontier” (sorry, K-Lo, for the minor Star Trek reference) of university indoctrination. For more than 20 years now, conservative, libertarian, and even many liberal critics of the academy have decried the tendency of universities to silence dissenters. Many of these same critics have also decried one-sided course instruction and a faculty culture that leans overwhelmingly left. By silencing dissent and ensuring that only one side is heard, the university certainly “indoctrinates” students (as that term is commonly understood). But this case is something more. Here, the university goes beyond censorship, beyond one-sided instruction, and invades the student’s most basic right to freedom of conscience. It is not enough to silence students. Instead, the department must force individuals to voice their agreement with the governing ideology.
It is no exaggeration to call this system “Orwellian.” At the end of 1984 (spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book), Winston Smith not only says that he loves Big Brother; he means it. Missouri State was going to force Emily Brooker to publicly support the campus’s reigning leftist ideology, and the punishment that resulted from the Star Chamber hearing was entirely designed to make sure that she meant it. After all, how could Emily follow the university’s command to “lessen the gap” between her own beliefs and the so-called “ethics” of the social-work profession but by changing her mind and heart?