David Horowitz's “academic” standards: Under fire, right-wing campus watchdog admits Colorado exam story is phony after accusing Media Matters of slander

Right-wing activist David Horowitz, the president of Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), which purports to fight anti-conservative bias on the nation's college campuses, has admitted that a story highly publicized by his group concerning alleged events at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) “appears to be wrong,” and that “our presentation of this case appears now to have had several faults.” Horowitz made the concession in an article posted on FrontPageMag.com, his online magazine, on March 15, under the headline, “Correction: Some of Our Facts Were Wrong, But Our Point Was Right.”

On March 14, in a post on his FrontPageMag.com blog titled “A new Brock slander goes round the web (and is refuted here),” Horowitz had accused Media Matters for America, which raised questions about whether the Colorado story was true in a March 7 item, of “slander” and insisted the story was true. Despite Horowitz's March 15 concession that the story is not true, the false attack on Media Matters is still posted on his blog.

The Horowitz about-face appears to have been prompted by a report, also posted March 15, on InsideHigherEd.com, which describes itself as “the online source for news, opinion and career advice and services for all of higher education,” that refuted nearly all of the claims Horowitz and his SAF group had made regarding a student's purported allegations of political bias against her criminal justice professor at the UNC. Horowitz and SAF had alleged that a student in "[a] criminology class at a Colorado university," when asked on a midterm essay exam to explain “why President Bush was a war criminal,” received a failing grade for answering instead why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal, and that this constituted anti-conservative bias. However, InsideHigherEd.com quoted a UNC spokeswoman as saying that “the test question was not the one described by Horowitz, the grade was not an F, and there were clearly non-political reasons for whatever grade was given.” All the information the university had “was inconsistent with the story Horowitz has told about this incident,” the website reported having been told by the UNC spokeswoman. The article also reported that the professor Horowitz and SAF attacked, Robert Dunkley, is a registered Republican.

Before retracting their claims, Horowitz and SAF had gone to great lengths to maintain their veracity in the face of skepticism from Mano Singham, the director of Case Western Reserve University's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, who questioned the Colorado story March 4 in a Cleveland Plain Dealer op-ed; and from Media Matters, which noted that media outlets were reporting the Horowitz story as if it were true even though there was no evidence to support it.

Horowitz attacked Media Matters for “slander,” defended allegation as true, but again provided no proof

In a March 14 FrontPageMag.com blog post, Horowitz attacked Media Matters and defended the University of Northern Colorado story's veracity, writing: “The story about the Colorado exam is true and was even referenced by the president of the university in question, Kay Norton, at legislative hearings on the Academic Bill of Rights. The complete facts are available here." The link Horowitz provided was simply to the SAF homepage, where a March 14 article titled “University of N. Colorado Story Confirmed” was featured. The article seemed to provide a number of details surrounding the story that Horowitz and SAF had not previously disclosed -- the name of the professor, the course description, and the format of the essay exam -- but absolutely no documentation to back up those details or the allegation.

Horowitz and SAF promised forthcoming evidence

The March 14 SAF article claimed that UNC president Kay Norton had testified to the incident at a September 9, 2004, hearing before the Colorado state legislature's Joint Education Committee. However, the article provided no quotes, and no links to a transcript of Norton's testimony. In lieu of evidence, the SAF article originally promised that "[a]n audio file of the relevant portions of UNC President Norton's testimony, along with a transcript, will be posted to the Students for Academic Freedom website on Monday [March 14, 2005, presumably]." However, the language of the article was changed late on March 14 to read "[a]n audio file of the relevant portions of UNC President Norton's testimony, along with a transcript, will be posted to the Students for Academic Freedom website in the near future" [emphasis added]. The article also claimed that letters the student allegedly received from the UNC administration regarding the incident would be posted on the SAF website “as soon as the student returns from spring break,” which, according to the university's website, ends on March 18. As of this posting, no audio files or transcripts have been posted on the SAF website or on FrontPageMag.com.

The SAF article also linked to a September 10, 2004, Washington Times article as “an example of the press coverage of the September 2004 legislative hearing.” The Times article did report on the Joint Education Committee hearing, but did not mention Norton by name and made no mention whatsoever of the alleged incident. A Nexis search revealed a September 10, 2004, Associated Press article that mentioned Norton and the Joint Education Committee hearing. The AP article made a number of specific references to instances of alleged anti-conservative bias on college campuses, but there was no mention of the alleged UNC incident.

In lieu of substantiating evidence, Horowitz posted correction

In his March 15 FrontPageMag.com recantation, despite acknowledging that the InsideHigherEd.com article “debunked” a number of the facts he and SAF had reported on the UNC incident, Horowitz continued to claim that the exam was biased: “So while we apologize for not having fully checked and corrected this story, we conclude that our complaint about the exam was justified.” Though the exam never asked students to “explain why George Bush is a war criminal,” as Horowitz had falsely claimed, Horowitz opined that the actual exam question, as reported by InsideHigherEd.com, was “loaded.” He then attacked “an army of Internet bloggers” who had allegedly joined with Case Western's Singham “to zero in one of the hundreds of cases [of anti-conservative bias on campuses] we have identified with the obvious intention of bringing the entire campaign for academic freedom and just plain decency in the classroom to a halt.”

The blog on DiscovertheNetwork.org, a website run by Horowitz that purports to “identif[y] the individuals and organizations that make up the left and also the institutions that fund and sustain it,” also touted Horowitz's “refutation” of the March 7 Media Matters item (here and here). The author of the posts, Richard Poe, who is identified as the blog's managing editor, has a reputation for spreading misinformation and using smear tactics. As Media Matters for America has documented, Poe floated a raft of distortions and factual misstatements in an attempt to smear billionaire philanthropist George Soros on the May 19, 2004, edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, and in a May 2004 article in the right-wing NewsMax magazine, of which Poe is a contributing editor.