Interesting University Student Freedom Case:

May a social work professor require that students sign a letter to the state legislature promoting equal treatment for homosexuals in foster parenting and adoption? That's what the Alliance Defense Fund alleged recently happened at Missouri State University; eventually, the requirement was canceled, apparently partly because of the student's objection — but the student's objection allegedly led to a disciplinary hearing in which she was questioned about her religious beliefs, and was told that her beliefs conflicted with the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics that the student had been required to sign as a condition of entering the school.

The student was then allegedly required to write a paper about "the difference between personal and professional beliefs and how she would 'lessen the gap' between these two beliefs. In the paper, she was also required to "state that she would not discriminate against men and women engaged in homosexual behavior, that she would be willing to place children in homosexual adoptive homes, and that she would abide by the NASW Code of Ethics and the School of Social Work's SEF." This was an obligation imposed on her but not on other students, apparently because of her protests against the requirement of signing the letter.

A Springfield News-Leader article reports that "The university's investigation determined that the allegations made in the lawsuit were 'pretty much accurate,' [MSU President Michael] Nietzel said." Here's what Missouri State University has to say:

Missouri State University today [Nov. 8, 2006] signed an out-of-court agreement with the Alliance Defense Fund, thus ending the lawsuit filed against the university by Emily Brooker....

According to the terms of the settlement, Missouri State agrees to the following:

* clear Brooker's official record of the Social Work Level 3 review referenced in the complaint.
* pay Brooker an amount of $9,000 and she will be responsible for her own legal fees.
* waive academic fees at Missouri State University, or in lieu thereof, reimburse an amount equal to two years of degree work toward a Master of Social Work degree (or a graduate degree of equivalent length) at any public institution in the state, which is estimated at approximately $12,000, plus Brooker will receive $3,000 per year in living expense for two years of graduate education.

"We acted on these allegations as soon as we became aware of them the afternoon of Oct. 30," said Missouri State President Michael T. Nietzel. "Although our investigation did not support all of the allegations made in the lawsuit, we were concerned about some of the actions that we did learn about."

In addition to the terms of the lawsuit, Nietzel also announced that based on the university's investigation, he believed it was important for the university to take a number of other steps that addressed broader issues. They include the following:

* Nietzel will commission a comprehensive, professionally directed evaluation of the Missouri State Social Work Program. He has asked Provost Belinda McCarthy to identify an outside group of social work education experts who will be charged with this review. "It is important for current and prospective students, for potential employers, and for the faculty and staff in the program to have confidence that the policies, procedures, leadership, and delivery of the program are up to par," said Nietzel. "The reviewers will have the complete cooperation of the university as they conduct their assessment. We will begin to recruit this external team immediately with the hope that they can visit us and conduct the review in the spring 2007 semester."

* Dr. Frank G. Kauffman, assistant professor of social work, has voluntarily stepped down from his administrative duties as director of the Master of Social Work Program. In addition, he has been re-assigned to non-classroom duties in the School of Social Work for the remainder of the fall semester. Finally, Kauffman has begun weekly consultations with Associate Provost Chris Craig, which will continue at least through the spring 2007 semester.

* Finally, Nietzel will appoint an ad hoc committee to recommend ways in which the university can better publicize and more effectively implement its policies regarding freedom of speech and expression on campus. "The Declaration of Community Principles and the Statement of Student Rights adopted by Missouri State a number of years ago are very good and powerful statement of rights and responsibilities," said Nietzel. "And, we have strong and effective grievance policies in place. We need to make sure that all members of the campus community, especially new members, are familiar with the Principles and the policies. When we talk about making sure that a Missouri State education is rigorous, part of that is the recognition that the content, theories, and implications of any number of academic disciplines often engender vigorous debate and can sometimes conflict with personal beliefs. How these controversies and how the inevitable clashes of personal convictions and values are raised and addressed are crucial questions for a university. Ultimately, universities must be responsible for providing an environment that promotes learning and that permits individuals to exchange ideas in honest and civil ways. That is our goal."

I'll have some things to say about this shortly, but I thought that I'd start by just posting the allegations and the university's reaction.

Related Posts (on one page):

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