Student Freedom and Academic Honesty:

I hope to post a bit more about the Missouri State University case, student freedom, and the compelled speech doctrine. But right now, I wanted to raise a separate question that I hadn't seen much covered in the news accounts of the story.

The student alleged -- and it appears that the university president called the allegations in the complaint "pretty much accurate" -- that a professor had tried to require that students sign a letter to the legislature promoting equal treatment for homosexuals in foster parenting and adoption. I think that's a violation of the student's academic freedom rights and First Amendment rights.

But isn't it also dishonest? Letters to the legislature are generally understood to be the opinion of the signers (except in certain well-understood circumstances, such as if the letter is signed by an agent -- such as a lawyer or a lobbyist -- on behalf of the people or organizations that the agent represents). If I send a letter with twenty people's signatures on it, I'm saying that the letter represents the people's views. The whole point of having the twenty signatures would be to suggest to readers that this is a view that many people hold, and that legislatures should pay special attention to this view. (A letter may also be intended to persuade through the force of its reasoning rather than through the number of its signatories, but if that were the only purpose, there'd be no need for any signatures, much less for many.)

Obviously, if I forged someone's name on the letter, I'd be lying to the legislature. Likewise, I'd be lying to the legislature (and not just to the signers) if I'd told the signers that they were signing one letter, but in reality they were signing something else -- I'd be misrepresenting to the legislature what the signers' beliefs actually were.

But I think that I'd be acting dishonestly even if I simply required (as a condition of success in a class or success on the job) that people sign the letter: Their signatures would be there not necessarily because they believe in what the letter says, but because I coerced them into signing it. (The same would be true if I bribed them into signing the letter.) Of course, there wouldn't be any dishonesty if the letter expressly said "We were required to sign this letter as a class project," but I rather doubt that this happened, since that would have defeated the purpose of sending a letter to the legislature. (The complaint alleges not just that the students had to write the letter as an assignment, but that the class was to write the letter, each student would sign it, and the letter would then be sent to the legislature on MSU letterhead.)

Now naturally there are borderline cases, for instance if I don't require people to sign the letter, but urge them to do so in ways that might make them feel that they ought to sign to get benefits (or avoid harms) from me in the future. But as I understand the allegations in the complaint, the instructor's instructions weren't on the borderline: The instructor allegedly made this part of a class assignment. If things had gone as the instructor had planned, the legislature would have gotten a letter purporting to express the signers' views -- without being told that the signers were required to state someone else's views, rather than genuinely stating their own.

So it seems to me that, if indeed these allegations are "pretty much accurate," the instructor wasn't just planning to violate the student's academic freedom rights. The instructor was also planning to do something that violate his duty of honesty, in implicitly representing to the legislature that the letter's signers believed its contents, without revealing that the signers were in reality required to sign.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Student Freedom and Academic Honesty:
  2. Interesting University Student Freedom Case: