Flag-burning 'lesson' provokes UM studentBy Toni-Lynn Robbins
Bangor Daily News
Saturday, November 03, 2007
ORONO, Maine - A University of Maine student alleges her former professor offered extra credit to class members if they burned the American flag or the U.S. Constitution or were arrested defending free speech.
On the first day of class, associate professor Paul Grosswiler offered the credit to members of his History of Mass Communications class, according to sophomore Rebekah McDade. Disturbed by the comment, McDade dropped the class and intends to take the course again next semester with a different professor.
"I was offended," McDade said Friday. "I come from a family of military men and women, and the flag and Constitution are really important symbols to me because of my family background."
In an e-mail responding to a request for comment from the Bangor Daily News on Friday, Grosswiler said he thought McDade misunderstood the class discussion, which was intended to elicit thought about the First Amendment. He said he has held this same discussion for years without incident.
"I don’t intend for students to burn either the Constitution or the flag, and over the years hundreds of students have understood that," Grosswiler wrote.
The incident was made public recently when The Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization, distributed a press release detailing the classroom discussion.
The Leadership Institute was founded in 1979 by Morton Blackwell and has a mission to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in politics, government and the media, according to the organization’s Web site.
A field representative for the institute met McDade on Oct. 1 at UM, when she shared her experience and expressed an interest in spearheading a group "Students for Academic Freedom," Blackwell said Friday.
The group’s initial goal would be to convince UM to enact a "Student Bill of Rights," as other colleges have, which would protect students from professors who treat and grade students differently based on religious or political beliefs, McDade said. The institute has assisted McDade in the startup process, she said.
"When we heard the story, we said ‘Hey, this is probably worthwhile our doing a news release,’" Blackwell said. "When you expose leftist abuses, it invigorates conservatives. I am sure that the administration, like most administrations we deal with, is not happy when leftist abuses come to life. They far prefer to have students under their thumb and indoctrinated."
McDade said Friday she was a little uncomfortable with the publicity and that it might have gotten out of hand. She said her intent was not to put the focus on Grosswiler, but to give students an opportunity to voice their concerns.
A journalism and political science double major, McDade said the first class of her fall semester at UM began with the typical syllabus introduction and class overview. Despite repeated "liberal" comments made by Grosswiler, McDade said, she was not uncomfortable in the classroom until the flag burning comment.
"Everyone is entitled to their own political beliefs, and more power to you if you are passionate about it," McDade said.
When Grosswiler listed the extra-credit opportunities, McDade said the class of approximately 50 students grew very quiet, and some questioned whether he was serious.
At first, student Kathleen Dame said she thought Grosswiler was joking, but then he went on to explain to the class that burning the flag was not illegal. While Grosswiler approached the topic in a serious manner, Dame said she felt he used it as a tool to educate the class on the First Amendment.
"It was pretty outlandish and [he was] trying to prove a point," Dame said Friday.
While McDade said she would not be surprised if students followed through with the flag burning, Dame disagreed.
UM spokesman Joe Carr said Friday that Grosswiler’s classroom comments were not intended to be taken literally and that extra credit would not be granted for carrying out such activities.
A second person in the class did submit a complaint about the lecture, but Carr did not know in what form it was filed.
When asked whether the university would pursue disciplinary action, Carr replied, "No."
He said Grosswiler has worked at the University of Maine since 1991, is one of the more veteran professors in the department of communication and journalism, and is a "well-respected member of the faculty."
In his e-mail Friday, Grosswiler, who is a former BDN employee, explained that he refers to provocative examples, such as flag burning, to demonstrate the courage necessary to support free expression.
"If they don’t tolerate thought that they hate, they don’t believe in the First Amendment," he wrote.
"I applaud the student’s exercise of free expression. If she had stayed in the class, I would have given her extra credit for publicizing her opinions."
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