A “Student Bill of Rights”?
An Examination of SB5, Its consequences, and Morrow’s attempt to justify it

Recent events at Santa Rosa Junior College have drawn attention to a California bill by Senator Morrow (R- Oceanside).  Given this, it’s significant that Morrow wrote an editorial in SRJC's student newspaper, the Oak Leaf.  It’s an opportunity to examine both his bill and his editorial’s attempt to justify it.

This legislation, which has been dubbed the “Student Bill of Rights,” is flawed in ways that have unacceptable consequences; for, while the bill makes numerous references to well-established educational principles, it applies them vaguely.

For example, the bill declares “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas.”  At first glance this seems reasonable.  But in what ways are such topics “unsettled”?  Is the bill implying there’s an equal amount of evidence for all views?  It’s not clear; and this leaves the bill open to speculative interpretations.

By itself this vagueness wouldn’t be significant; but the bill refers to these topics’ “unsettled” nature while prescribing how educators should organize curricula and reading lists.  If the bill is implying there’s an equal amount of evidence for all views, what does it mean when it directs educators to "provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints"?

Does this bill require teachers to provide students with all viewpoints on every topic or only some viewpoints?  If it implies all of them, a problem arises.  For, there’s often not enough time to discuss all views; and if all views are equally “unsettled,” teachers seemingly would violate this bill when they exclude any views.

If the bill is mandating educators cover only some dissenting viewpoints, an important question arises; for, despite sensational anecdotes suggesting the contrary, it’s already common for college educators to cover multiple views.  So, if the bill is mandating educators cover only some views, which viewpoints will be required?  It’s not clear; and this leaves the bill open to speculative interpretations.

That Morrow’s bill is vague – and these are only a couple examples of its vagueness – is significant; for vague laws can be manipulated; and this has consequences.

For example, consider that this bill is applied to disciplines which do not teach viewpoints.  As I like to say to my students, such classes help students fine-tune their ability to think about a topic’s different viewpoints.  So, when I teach students to recognize fallacious reasoning, I’m not criticizing the view addressed by my examples.  I am criticizing the reasoning used to support the viewpoint.

The fact Morrow’s bill neglects this distinction is important.  By vaguely prescribing educators treat topics as "unsettled," vaguely directing them to “provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints,” and failing to make a clear distinction between a viewpoint and its reasoning, does the bill imply that educators shouldn’t point out flawed thinking unless they present the criticism as only another “unsettled” viewpoint?  It’s not clear; and this leaves the bill open to manipulative interpretations with unacceptable consequences.  Suddenly, criticizing the reasoning used to support a viewpoint can be misconstrued as criticism of the viewpoint; and teachers who correctly point out flawed reasoning can be accused of being biased against a viewpoint and indoctrinating a contrary viewpoint. 

But is it biased to point out flawed reasoning?  For example, consider how Morrow’s Oak Leaf editorial attempted to justify his bill.  Providing some sensational anecdotes does not help us understand if there’s a general problem needing to be addressed; and it certainly doesn’t support his hyperbolic claim that “a growing number [of faculty]… run their classrooms as if managing little Abu Ghraibs.”  Similarly, when Morrow points out that the American Association of University Professors dropped one policy, but he ignores the other policies of that organization, every California college, and every California university, his reasoning didn’t help us understand whether or not current educational policies are insufficient; and it certainly didn’t justify his bill as the solution. 

Being able to recognize flawed reasoning is not a bias.  It’s thinking critically, which will become harder to teach if Morrow’s bill becomes California law.

Michael Aparicio
Philosophy Instructor
Santa Rosa Junior College