One Humanist's Stand for Academic Freedom
(Washington, D.C., July 10, 2008) The Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC), legal arm of the American Humanist Association, expressed its satisfaction today with a settlement resulting from its academic freedom advocacy on behalf of humanist educator Steven C. Bitterman in his dispute with Southwestern Community College in Red Oak, Iowa.
Bitterman had been an adjunct faculty member in the history department of the college since 2001, teaching Western Civilization at least three times. No complaints had been made against him by students or faculty until September 2007. When some students, taking his class via closed-circuit television, objected to Bitterman saying that the biblical story of Adam and Eve shouldn’t be taken literally, they alleged that this and other statements belittled their religion. He later responded in an interview in “Community College Week,” published October 8, 2007, saying, “I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god.”
On September 20, 2007, Bitterman was fired. In an October 11 letter he called upon the college to publicly commit to the principle of academic freedom by acknowledging “that all ideas and beliefs are open to critical assessment in the classroom by both instructors and students.” The college responded on October 19, declaring, in part:
“First and foremost, the College understands and adheres to the principles of academic freedom in the governance of its instructors. All instructors at Southwestern Community College, both full-time and adjunct, are given the freedom to present the material for which they are responsible in the manner of their choosing. Consistent with sound principles of academic instruction, all instructors are expected to select methods of presentation which are educationally effective and which respect the rights and interests of students.”
This was followed by negotiations that resulted in the settlement that has now become final. By agreement of the parties, the terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.
“I’m satisfied with this settlement and pleased that this dispute didn’t have to go further or take longer,” Bitterman said. “As I’d indicated in the beginning, handling matters in this way is preferable.”
Bitterman’s attorney, Brad Schroeder of Des Moines, Iowa, who was recruited and assisted by the AHLC, stated he was appreciative of the widespread support his client has received from members of the academic community. “That support certainly helped facilitate this resolution,” he said. “We feel our concerns have been addressed.”
“Part of the mission of the American Humanist Association is to take action upholding the civil liberties of humanists,” added AHA Executive Director Roy Speckardt. “Today we are pleased that Southwestern Community College has done the right thing.”
The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.