McCarthy-era Methods, Operation Red Scare, and Senator Morrow’s Defense of His Student Bill of Rights

by Michael Aparicio

October 17, 2005


Dr. Schrecker’s analysis reminds us of an important role of historical studies.  Among other things, fine-tuning our understanding of an event’s historical conditions helps us recognize and anticipate their contemporary significance.  I’d like to add to this conversation by both highlighting and elaborating on three of the similarities between McCarthy-era methods and what happened on our own campus last semester.  Taken together, I believe these similarities raise concerns about these events’ potential threat on academic freedom.


First, I’d like to share a brief description of “Operation Red Scare” and its aftermath.  Last February a flyer was anonymously posted on the office windows and doors of ten Santa Rosa Junior College faculty.  On top of the flyer was a red star.  Below the star was a McCarthy era section of California’s education code.  A few days later the SRJC College Republicans released a statement identifying themselves as the authors of this Red Star flyer.  That evening the California College Republicans released a statement identifying the action as “Operation Red Scare.”  The incident was covered by local news and filled editorial pages in the following months.  In the midst of this California State Senator Rob Morrow (R- Oceanside), the author of California Senate Bill 5, the Student Bill of Rights, published an editorial in the SRJC student newspaper.


I believe both Operation Red Scare and Senator Morrow’s editorial employ three McCarthy era tactics.


First, they portray educators as a threat to the public.  The Red Star flyer associated 10 faculty with the illegal act of indoctrinating or inculcating a preference for overthrowing our government and replacing it with a Marxist dictatorship; and the SRJC College Republican’s February 28th press release claimed “We did this because we believe certain instructors at SRJC are in violation of California state law.”  Senator Morrow’s editorial made two striking claims.  First it alleged that, “In some cases, our public campuses are morphing into hotbeds of incivility, intolerance, lack of intellectual diversity, harassment, intimidation, and breach of contract."  Second, it charged that a “growing number [of faculty] run their classrooms as if managing little Abu Graibs.”  In case you don’t remember this reference, Abu Graib is the Iraqi prison about which controversial photos raised concern about prisoner abuse and torture.


These claims are significant; for, even when such allegations aren’t true, portraying educators as a public threat can compromise and – under the right circumstances –even undermine their ability to educate.


Second, both Operation Red Scare and Senator Morrow’s editorial show reckless disregard for evidence.  As Dr. Schrecker noted, only a few days after posting the Red Star flyer, the SRJC College Republicans’ President admitted the group had "no specific complaints, no threats or specific accusations."  And Senator Morrow supported his editorial’s claims with no evidence other than two vaguely described incidents.   The first was a 2002 U.C.B. course taught by a graduate student.  The second took place outside the classroom, when a student was arrested and convicted during an incident when he was posting a flyer on a C.S.U. campus.


This is significant; for, if these allegations are made with reckless disregard for evidence, this raises concerns about the allegations’ actual goal(s).  For example, are they poorly researched attempts to identify a sincerely perceived threat?  Are they political opportunism and educators just happen to be collateral damage?  Or are they deliberately targeting educators?  I am not confident I can answer these questions, at least concerning the students who were behind Operation Red Scare.  But, no matter what their intentions were, both Operation Red Scare and Senator Morrow’s editorial posed a plausible threat.


This is, in part, because of the third McCarthy-era method employed by Operation Red Scare and Senator Morrow’s editorial.  Both threatened the livelihood of the educators they criticize.  Admittedly, this method distinguishes McCarthy-era attacks on educators and what happened here last semester; for McCarthy-era attacks actually affected their victims’ livelihood and neither Operation Red Scare nor Senator Morrow’s editorial had such an effect.  But, it is important to note that each appealed to such a threat.  The SRJC Republicans President’s February 28th blog threatened to “smack Sean Hannity and the O’Reilly Factor” on faculty.  I remember reading this and worrying.  As this blog was written these shows were threatening the livelihood of the University of Colorado’s Ward Churchill.  I worried that I might be their next target.  The fact the charges against me were inaccurate and based on a reckless disregard for evidence did not seem to matter.  What mattered was that SRJC’s Board of Trustees was scheduled to consider my tenure in a week.  I didn’t know what to think.  I didn’t know how to feel.


I want to make it clear that I am not claiming the SRJC Republican President was deliberately threatening my tenure when she threatened to “smack Sean Hannity and the O’Reilly Factor” on the faculty.  I have come to suspect that she was on a “fishing expedition,” hoping to target biased college teachers in order to promote Senator Morrow’s bill.  She doesn’t seem to have realized that her threat was reaching for a “shot gun” instead of a “fishing pole.”


In contrast, Senator Morrow’s editorial seemed to deliberately threaten faculty.  Recall its first allegation: “Some campuses are morphing into hotbeds of incivility, intolerance, lack of intellectual diversity, harassment, intimidation, and breach of contract.”  This last claim uses an important legal phrase… “breach of contract.”  This charge could be used to justify firing faculty.


This is significant; for, in the process of showing disregard for evidence as he portrays educators as public threats, Senator Morrow seems to be deliberately threatening educators’ livelihood.  As such, I am concerned that he is deliberately attacking educational institutions’ ability to educate, the very task upon which I understand the notion of academic freedom to be based, a task I understand to be vital to a democracy.