“The goal of educators is to seek out the truth, and sometimes the truth is controversial,” said Jane McCoy, Las Positas history professor.
The freedom of speech issue on college campuses is usually about students fighting against the establishment to be heard.
Whether a protest against policy, a demonstration supporting a political stance, or provocative sexual expression, college-level free speech controversies are usually about co-eds pushing the envelope.
But there is another angle. What happens when the professor pushes the envelope, leaving students wondering how can they say that?
Even at Las Positas College, teachers have been known to spout off controversial statements.
And many students are surprised to learn that, the interest of higher learning, teachers have the ability to speak their minds on everything under the purview of their subject.
“Academic freedom is absolutely essential in a place of higher learning,” McCoy said. “These are freedoms that are guaranteed through the Constitution, our First Amendment rights.”
Instructors at LPC are charged with task of protecting their academic freedom along with the students.
The Chabot-Las Positas Community College District policy on Academic Freedom protects teachers provided they avoid discrimination, harassment and exploitation.
One example, McCoy pointed out, would be teaching evolution.
On Nov. 19, the Ohio State Supreme Court ruled on the case Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., which was supposed to rule on academic freedom.
Justice C.J. O’Connor provided a background statement in his response that severely limited the academic freedoms of his students.
“Mount Vernon School Board asserts that despite the district’s instructions to cease doing so, Freshwater unequivocally injected his own Christian faith into his classroom as early as 1994 and continued to do so right up until he was relieved of his teaching duties.”
Supporters of academic freedom contend professors’ protection allows them to teach about the entirety of subjects.
The education process, as a result, isn’t limited by the political climate or social norms.
“A presentation I gave here two years ago to my students had a lot of information in it that could be considered controversial in other places,” said Catherine Suarez, a Spanish instructor at LPC. “I re-presented at a conference in Santiago, Cuba a summer ago, and I had to edit very carefully what I had to say.”
Professors count on the ability to be able to discuss controversial issues inside a classroom.
Students may find some of the information presented offensive or uncomfortable. But that is not enough to curb the freedom of the teacher.
And some teachers may intentionally exercise their freedoms for the reaction.
“Sometimes, I’ve made a controversial statement for the purpose of stimulating discussion,” McCoy said. “That is still within the realm of academic freedom.”
Like free speech, Academic freedom isn’t limitless, though. Many teachers have found themselves on the wrong side of the law by converting their classrooms into personal soap boxes.
Another place professors can’t go is political. Sure, they can talk about the issues. But they are prohibited from encouraging students to adopt certain political views.
“They can’t say, ‘Hey, students, go vote for this measure,’” said McCoy. “That’s not allowed.”