The Corner

Education

Arizona House Passes Campus Intellectual Diversity Bill

A protester marches around the Arizona State Capitol’s grounds in Phoenix, Ariz., June 25, 2012. (Darryl Webb/REUTERS)

Last week, the Arizona House became the first legislative body in the nation to pass a campus intellectual diversity bill based on model legislation I proposed here last year. House Bill 2238 instructs public universities in Arizona to stage debates, panel discussions, and individual lectures that explore America’s biggest public-policy controversies from divergent and opposing perspectives.

That means Arizona’s public universities would set up debates on issues like tariffs, single-payer healthcare, immigration, religious liberty, the Green New Deal, abortion, foreign policy in China and the Middle East, and more. The debates would be open to the public, and videos of each event would be posted on the Web. Students rarely hear from thoughtful representatives on both sides of our big public-policy controversies, and almost never see them in direct debate. That means HB 2238 will surely bring greater intellectual diversity to Arizona’s public university campuses.

HB 2238 was expertly guided through Arizona’s House by its sponsor, Representative Anthony Kern. I testified on the bill at a hearing of the House Education Committee, and had the pleasure of watching Kern in action during my visit. Unlike Congress, most state legislatures meet for only a few months each year. That means sessions are crowded with issues and move at a hectic pace. I’ve watched plenty of state legislators at work, but Kern is up there with the best. Somehow, he manages to keep up with the avalanche of issues that any state legislator has to deal with, while still finding time to shepherd his own innovative bills through the legislative maze. As Chair of the Rules Committee, Kern is a particularly influential and respected member. The voters of District 20 are lucky to have Kern as their representative.

While nothing is guaranteed, passage of HB 2238 into law is now a very real possibility. It’s tough to oppose exposing students to both sides of America’s big debates, but clearly some legislators are looking for excuses to do exactly that. The bill passed the House on a party-line vote. Like the House, however, the Arizona Senate and governorship are in Republican hands, so there is clearly a path to success for this bill.

I’ve already noted that opponents of HB 2238 have falsely claimed that the bill would force schools to invite a Holocaust denier to balance, say, an invitation from a student group to a lecturer on the Holocaust. This is nonsense. There is no requirement in the bill to balance talks before student groups or academic departments. Student groups and academic departments can go on as before, inviting any speakers they like, with no requirement for balance. It is only the University Office of Public Policy Events that must stage debates, with topics selected by the university itself. In any case, Kern has tweaked the language of the bill to remove the phrase that has been so egregiously mischaracterized by critics. Given that change, arguments against the bill have essentially collapsed.

If HB 2238 does become law, the impact will be visible and immediate. Since campus free-speech laws are essentially protective, they don’t generally work obvious changes in campus life. A campus intellectual diversity law is a very different animal. Imagine a series of debates on America’s biggest public-policy controversies on campuses where both sides of those issues are now only rarely heard. And imagine every debate freely available to the public on video. If the university carries out the new law in good faith, Arizona’s public-policy debate videos could quickly gain a national following.

Total resistance by the university is unlikely. With annual appropriations always at stake, good relations with the legislature are important to any public university. In the event that Arizona’s schools work to systematically subvert the new law, say by inviting “debaters” from only one side of the political spectrum, that would be immediately obvious from the videos. Public controversy would rightly follow.

Four states have introduced campus intellectual diversity acts: Arizona, Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas. Arizona is now moving to turn this proposal into a reality. True, the idea is no panacea for the ideological monolith that is the modern university, but it does have the potential to work a significant change. Even a single voice speaking knowledgeably and persuasively against a prevailing orthodoxy is powerful thing. That is why ideological enforcers work so hard to shout down dissenters. Imagine what would happen if ideas currently locked out of campus discussions were to become a regular presence at our great public universities.

In deference to academic freedom, the campus intellectual diversity bill leaves the classroom untouched. Even so, debating the country’s biggest controversies would work a profound change. Education in the truest sense can only emerge from the clash of opposing ideas. Now that will happen, even if only outside the classroom. The effects of on-campus debates would be felt in the classroom as well, if indirectly. Surely students will look to explore controversies they’d heard debated freely on campus by raising new questions in class.

Normalizing debate over our big public controversies would also get students accustomed to hearing out both sides. Campus free-speech laws are an essential first step. Yet watching free speech play out via thoughtful debates will likely do more to restore liberty to our college campuses than any change in formal rules or regulations. Free speech in action is what HB 2238 is all about.

If the Arizona Senate follows the House and passes HB 2238, we’ll soon get a chance to see how this new idea works. Should an experiment in even a single state prove successful, it could spark a wave of imitators across the country. Stay tuned.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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