Registering for academic freedom

Last year, as part of its Defense Authorization Act, Congress passed the so-called ''Solomon Amendment.'' Originally sponsored by Rep. Gerald Solomon (D) of New York, the amendment is directed at draft resisters. It requires any college student benefiting from a federal grant or loan program to submit proof of having registered for the draft. Students who are unable or unwilling to provide such proof will be denied federal support.

Efforts to overturn the provision in the courts were dealt a severe blow last month as the Supreme Court vacated a lower court injunction, thus clearing the way for implementation. Currently, colleges across the nation are scrambling to comply, while additional efforts to overturn the bill in Congress are under way.

The issue is a difficult one, however, and solid arguments against the bill have been hard to formulate. In my judgment, the amendment is indeed odious and unwise, but for rather different reasons than have been offered so far.

For some, the Solomon Amendment represents an unwarranted governmental intrusion into academia. But it is hard to see what kind of intrusion is contemplated. The federal aid programs under discussion involve voluntary transfers of funds from the government to college students; such funds are provided for a specific purpose and at the discretion of the donor, i.e., government. The Solomon Amendment simply involves a change in the eligibility requirements for receiving federal aid. There is, thus, no intrusion or additional federal presence on campus.

It is true that the change in eligibility requirements has been enacted for largely political reasons, and some have counted this as grounds for opposing the law. But on what other basis would one support such a change? Congress has simply sought to restructure a particular set of grant programs so as to achieve some specific public purpose. In this sense, the Solomon Amendment is roughly analogous to the government's withholding funds from colleges that engage in racist practices.

Others have argued that the Solomon Amendment is discriminatory since it singles out college students, among all potential draft resisters, for punishment. This is certainly true, but it is not obviously germane. There are all kinds of ''discrimination,'' some harmful and immoral, others highly salutary. The Solomon Amendment does single out a particular group for special treatment, but it is not clear that that group should have any special protection against such discrimination. Again, for the government to make certain discriminations in the pursuit of some public purpose is exactly what we would want it to do.

Still others argue that the Solomon Amendment would turn colleges into quasi-law enforcement agencies, forcing them to uncover and penalize draft resisters. It is true that proposed regulations attendant to the bill would require colleges to administer provisions of the amendment. But these regulations do not seem to require any college to turn in the names of those who have not registered; the college will simply fail to submit applications for students who do not qualify for aid and these will include wealthy students, students with other adequate sources of support, and students who have simply failed to apply for aid, as well as draft resisters. Further, it is not at all clear that being denied financial aid on grounds of ineligibility can be construed as a criminal penalty.

In sum, the Solomon Amendment would seem to be well within the limits of legitimate government action. Yet I believe it to be nonetheless unwise and inappropriate, for it constitutes a significant threat to academic freedom broadly construed. In brief, the Solomon Amendment will have the effect of allocating educational opportunity on the basis of political belief.

Failure to register for the draft is certainly a crime, but it is different from most other crimes in the degree to which it can be plausibly related to matters of political conscience and belief. Clearly, this will not be true for many, perhaps even most, of those who fail to register. But for many others, the decision to violate the law will be based on some kind of political or moral consideration. To deprive such students of educational opportunities, while providing similar opportunities to those who hold different ideas, is to compromise basic notions of free thought and inquiry.

Colleges and universities, islands of free thinking, cannot perform their function fully if students with particular ideas are systematically excluded. The openness of the campus to all reasonable points of view, and the easy access of all those who qualify on intellectual grounds regardless of political conviction, is an important part of academic freedom properly understood. The academy thus demands and requires intellectual diversity, and this is a quality which government policy ought to nurture rather than subvert.

Again, it may well be that government has a right to enforce the provisions of the Solomon Amendment; but it would be wrong to do so, for the protection of academic freedom - in the fullest sense - is in the public's long-term interest.

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