Washington State University Continues Campaign of Repression

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Oct. 12

PULLMAN, Wash.—In recent months, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has intervened twice at Washington State University to protect students’ freedom of expression. After publicly proclaiming respect for their students’ rights, Washington State administrators have now made clear that, between their grading students on their politics and their paying for hecklers to disrupt student plays, liberty is still in dire straits in Pullman.

“The latest developments at Washington State are quite revealing,” remarked FIRE President David French. “After the administration twice refused to apologize for subsidizing disruptive hecklers and refused to guarantee that it wouldn’t do so again, the dean of education suggested that Justice Antonin Scalia’s beliefs might disqualify him from earning a teaching degree from Washington State.”

This fall FIRE defended the rights of 42-year-old education student Ed Swan, a self-described conservative Christian. Swan was given poor marks on “dispositions” criteria used by Washington State’s College of Education for expressing beliefs such as the idea that white privilege and male privilege do not exist. “Dispositions” criteria, used to evaluate students’ commitment to ideological concepts such as “social justice,” sensitivity to “community and cultural norms,” and “others’ varied talents and perspectives,” are used nationwide in education programs and can often jeopardize students’ First Amendment rights.

Before FIRE intervened in this case, Washington State threatened Swan with dismissal if he did not sign an unconstitutional contract obliging him to submit to even more ideological litmus tests. Upon receiving FIRE’s letter, the university dropped the contract and pledged to FIRE that it would no longer use its “dispositions” criteria in an unconstitutional manner.

Yet in comments to E. Kirsten Peters, a reporter from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Washington State Dean of Education Judy Mitchell revealed the College of Education’s chilling disregard for the First Amendment. When Peters asked Mitchell if conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could pass the “dispositions” criteria, Mitchell replied, “I don’t know how to answer that.” She continued, “I haven’t been in on faculty discussions of how the faculty apply the language to individual students.”

“Dean Mitchell’s unguarded comments prove that Washington State has not learned its lesson,” declared FIRE’s French. “After swearing that the College of Education would not use political beliefs as a litmus test for future teachers, she admitted that she had done nothing to make sure that her students would not face these arbitrary and unconstitutional ideological tests.”

The Passion of Mob Censorship

Washington State’s actions against Ed Swan follow its attack on the rights of student playwright Chris Lee, who produced a controversial play entitled Passion of the Musical. Lee’s intentionally offensive play was meant to, in his words, “show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of.” Although he is African American himself and the play poked fun at virtually every imaginable group, Lee was accused of racism, and his play was disrupted several times by hecklers, some of whom violently threatened the actors.

FIRE soon discovered that Washington State administrators had bought tickets for hecklers to attend his play, and later uncovered the fact that administrators had furthermore organized the protest, encouraging students to stand up and say “I’m offended” every time Lee’s play rankled them. The students did that and much more, severely disrupting Lee’s play and trampling his First Amendment rights. After Washington State President V. Lane Rawlins repeatedly refused to admit any wrongdoing, Vice President Michael Tate asked Lee to write a letter indicating what he hoped the university would do. Lee did so, emphasizing that he intends to produce other plays and is afraid his rights will not be protected. However, Tate’s response repeated the university’s incorrect claim that heckling is free speech, too.

“It is ridiculous to assert that shouting down a play enjoys the same level of constitutional protection as the play itself,” noted FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Universities have a responsibility to stop disruptive hecklers, not aid and abet them. Washington State’s utter disregard for Chris Lee’s rights is indefensible.”

“Chris Lee plans to put on more plays this fall,” FIRE’s French concluded. “FIRE will continue to fight these abuses until Washington State acknowledges its obligation to make sure Chris Lee’s plays are not disrupted again, and until its College of Education actually dismantles its edifice of ideological discrimination.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Washington State University can be viewed at thefire.org/wsu.


The cultural Left has a new tool for enforcing political conformity in schools of education. It is called dispositions theory, and it was set forth five years ago by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education: Future teachers should be judged by their “knowledge, skills, and dispositions.” What are “dispositions”? NCATE’s prose made clear that they are the beliefs and attitudes that guide a teacher toward a moral stance. That sounds harmless enough, but it opened a door to reject teaching candidates on the basis of thoughts and beliefs. In 2002, NCATE said that an education school may require a commitment to social justice. William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford, wrote last month that education schools “have been given unbounded power over what candidates may think and do, what they may believe and value.”

NCATE vehemently denies that it is imposing groupthink, but the ed schools, essentially a leftist monoculture, use dispositions theory to require support for diversity and a culturally left-wing agenda, including opposition to what the schools sometimes call “institutional racism, classism, and heterosexism.” Predictably, some students concluded that thought control would make classroom dissent dangerous. A few students rebelled when a teacher at Brooklyn College School of Education showed Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 in class and dismissed “white English” as “the language of oppressors.” Five students filed written complaints and received no formal reply from the college. One was told to leave the school and take an equivalent course at a community college. Two of the complaining students were then accused of plagiarism and marked down one letter grade. The two were refused permission to bring a witness, a tape recorder, or a lawyer to meet with a dean to discuss the matter.

Robert Davd “K. C.” Johnson, a history professor at the school who defended the dissenting students, became a target himself. After writing an article in Inside Higher Ed attacking dispositions theory as a form of mind control, Johnson faced a possible investigation by a faculty Integrity Committee. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education entered the case on Johnson’s behalf, accusing the college of viewpoint discrimination and a violation of academic freedom. FIRE is a national civil liberties group that does what the American Civil Liberties Union should be doing but usually won’t. FIRE said: “Brooklyn College must confirm that it tolerates dissent, that it is not conducting another secret investigation of one of its own professors.” FIRE says the college has “disavowed any secret investigation.”

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