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College 'anti-racism' rules echo the worst episode of campus censorship in US history

College professor in classroom

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on Sept. 29, 2023.

More than 70 years ago, California ’s colleges and universities played a shameful role in the effort to suppress academic freedom in the name of anti-communism. In 1949, the University of California enacted an anti-communist loyalty oath that all faculty and staff were required to sign. Thirty-nine professors and 84 staff members refused and were fired. As a result, around 55 courses were canceled, and 47 scholars were denied UC teaching jobs.

Fortunately, after the excesses of the Red Scare, the public realized that suppressing ideas harmed democracy and hindered freedom. As the Supreme Court put it in 1957: “To impose any straitjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation.”

That’s why, as a nation, we committed to making America’s colleges and universities bastions of critical thinking rather than indoctrination.

Little did we know Red Scare-era tactics would be making a comeback in California.

Crowd of protesters people. Silhouettes of people with banners and megaphones. Concept of revolution or protest.

The new Red Scare taking over America's college campuses


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The California Community Colleges system, which serves 1.8 million students across the state, recently implemented an ideological litmus test in the form of diversity, equity, and inclusion rules for faculty members. These rules force professors to endorse the government’s highly politicized DEI viewpoints, such as the belief that race-conscious remedies are required to overcome systemic racism (“anti-racism”) or that ideas such as “colorblindness” and “merit” actually “protect white privilege.” Faculty will be evaluated for how effectively they integrate these viewpoints into their teaching and could be disciplined if they fail.

A set of model principles published by the state warns faculty against “weaponizing academic freedom” to “inflict curricular trauma” on students. The government uses this vague and threatening language to turn routine educational practices, such as assigning controversial or thought-provoking books, into grounds for poor evaluations, denial of tenure, or even disciplinary action.

To be clear, challenging students isn’t inflicting trauma; it’s called education.

Questions surrounding DEI lie at the heart of our nation’s most challenging and contested conversations. From the boardroom to Capitol Hill, politicians, scholars, and everyday people are debating the best way to overcome racial inequity in a manner consistent with our nation’s ideal of equality under the law. College classrooms are meant for debate and discussion on these pressing questions. But these new rules will suppress academic inquiry and classroom debate about those issues, making intellectual straitjackets mandatory classroom apparel.

In August, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech charity where I work, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s DEI rules on behalf of six community college professors in the State Center Community College District. These six educators come from diverse disciplines, from English to philosophy to history to chemistry. All of them, however, are being forced to drastically change how they teach to conform to the DEI rules at the risk of discipline or termination.

College classrooms must remain places of vigorous debate and intellectual growth, not ideological indoctrination centers. 

For instance, two of our clients are afraid to assign Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” They fear getting poor evaluations or being disciplined, either because of the presence of racial slurs in the letter or because its sentiments are out of step with the “anti-racist” perspective they are required to endorse. Several of the professors love to encourage debates on contentious topics, such as the death penalty and drug legalization, but are hesitant to say anything that might run contrary to the DEI mandate.

It doesn’t help that the DEI rules are incredibly overbroad and use ideologically loaded abstract terms, such as “a race-conscious and intersectional lens,” that are almost impossible to understand or comply with.

College classrooms must remain places of vigorous debate and intellectual growth, not ideological indoctrination centers. Otherwise, “our civilization will stagnate and die,” as the Supreme Court once memorably put it .

The Red Scare showed how quickly we can rush to censor ideas that are controversial or unsettling, shutting down valuable contributions to knowledge in the process. We’re suing to stop history from repeating itself.

Daniel Ortner is an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and has published a law review article about the DEIA requirements and the First Amendment.

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