Rowan-Cabarrus Community College administrators ventured into dangerous territory when they pulled the plug on an instructor's showing of "Fahrenheit 9/11" in class during the week before Nov. 2. They probably didn't know what wire they were tripping over.
RCCC's administration should apologize for suspending Davis March, an instructor at the college for more than 20 years. March acted within the acceptable limits of an academic setting - he should not have been censored in his approach.
The Charlotte Observer reported that RCCC President Richard Brownell had issued an Oct. 25 memo stating that using "the classroom or college environment as a platform to promote (an employee's) own personal, religious or political views or to advocate for specific political candidates," is impermissible. Brownell had a point - nonpartisanship on the part of professors is beneficial to the academic development of students and to the overall quality of the institution.
But the warning shouldn't have served to ban discussion regarding political candidates and the election. In punishing March, RCCC administrators neglected to recognize that the presentation of strong opinions is necessary for a vibrant academic environment.
Prompting an exchange of those viewpoints is commendable - and there's little indication that March intended to do otherwise. "I make it abundantly clear that their opinion, whether it agrees with 'Dad' or not, it's not going to cost them either way," he told The Observer.
Even if he had insinuated that the viewpoint expressed by director Michael Moore in the controversial film was his own, college students are adults. They don't need to be protected from ideas with which they might not be comfortable, as long as there is no attempted coercion or indoctrination.
Latent partisanship and underlying conviction is evident in many college instructors - it is the responsibility of the students to comprehend the information that is given to them.
March was not teaching third graders. He was teaching adults in a liberal arts class at an institution of higher education. At this stage, critical thinking should be at its prime.
"His classes have always been designed to open up our minds," student Kristen Pitel, 21, told the Observer. "He is one to drop a bomb in the water and see where the fish go."
Arguing that the timing of the film - just before the election - was a lapse in judgment would be preposterous. What better timing could there have been? By showing the movie before the election, March brought up a dialogue that was current and relevant.
Setting limits on when teachers can show certain material endangers academic freedom. Should politically slanted material be shown only two weeks before the election, or three? And how can administrators have the right to judge what material is restricted?
Critics claim that a chilling effect occurs when political slants appear in a classroom without the opposite argument being presented alongside them.
But as long as instructors make reasonable efforts to promote discussion and objectivity when they compel their students to view sensitive material, they shouldn't be limited in the material they can choose to discuss. In this situation, the chilling effect only applies to the censorship that March underwent after he tried to show "Fahrenheit 9/11."
The act served to undermine the scholastic and cultural power that rightfully belong to today's college and university professors. RCCC's administration should try to mend the wound it has inflicted.
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