The strange story of David Horowitz and the “Bush-as-war-criminal” essay

I apologize for the length of this post but I felt a responsibility (especially since I had a role in creating this rolling snowball) to provide a fairly comprehensive update on the convoluted, strange, and suddenly fast-moving, saga of David Horowitz, the organization he founded called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), and the college professor who allegedly asked his class to write a mid-term essay on “Why George Bush is a war criminal,” and then gave an F grade to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in one on “Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal.”

As told by Horowitz himself on September 13, 2004, the story goes like this:

At the request of Colorado Senate President John Andrews, a legislative hearing was held in December of 2003 on a proposed bill to incorporate provisions of the Academic Bill of Rights in a Senate resolution. Many students and faculty members came forward to share their personal experiences of discrimination and harassment on campus because of their political or religious views. Among the evidence presented at this December hearing was testimony from a student at the University of Northern Colorado who told legislators that a required essay topic on her criminology mid-term exam was: “Explain why George Bush is a war criminal.” When she submitted an essay explaining why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal instead, she was given an “F.”

This story has been circulating widely for over a year, propelled by David Horowitz and SAF, and has been used to support allegations of rampant academic bullying in universities and the need for state legislatures to step in and protect students from such actions.

Horowitz gave testimony using this story again just last week to the state legislative committee holding hearings on the proposed Senate Bill 24 (“to establish the academic bill of rights for higher education”) in Ohio.

I wrote about the essay story in an op-ed piece that appeared on March 4, 2005 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where I said that I was skeptical about the story and that although I had tried to follow up the sources cited by Horowitz to find out what had really happened, I had not been able to locate the names, dates, and places of the alleged incident, making me suspect that it was an urban legend.

Enter the internet at lightning speed. The op-ed was picked up by the website of the media watchdog group Media Matters for America and featured on March 8 as one example of what they alleged are serial distortions by Horowitz on a variety of topics.

Media Matters for America seems to have a big readership and this news item set off a flurry of activity with many more people investigating this essay story in particular and Horowitz’s claims in general. (See Cliopatria and Canadian Cynic for some of the blogs following the story.)

SAF responded to this new questioning by posting on their website on March 14 a new article titled University of Northern Colorado Story Confirmed that contained new information about the story, including the date and name of the course and the name of the professor involved. The student’s name was withheld because she had requested confidentiality. Someone from SAF called me to alert me to the new posting. He was very friendly, we had a cordial conversation, and I agreed with him that the information now made available by SAF removed the story from the status of possible urban legend and that all that was now needed was information on the facts of the case itself, which had still not been revealed but which I was told was supposedly still under investigation. I posted an update on my blog to that effect.

Well, fresh information was soon forthcoming and it came from a report on March 15 by Inside Higher Ed, which describes itself as “the online source for news, opinion and career advice and services for all of higher education.” After posting an initial report mentioning my op-ed piece, the editor Scott Jaschik investigated further and writes that he contacted Horowitz, got the name of the faculty member from him, and then spoke to him and the administration of the University of Northern Colorado.

This is what Jaschik found. (The six points below are mostly verbatim quotes from his piece.)

  1. Gloria Reynolds, a university spokeswoman, acknowledged Monday that a complaint had been filed two years ago complaining of political bias by a criminal justice professor.
  2. The professor who has been held up as an example of out-of-control liberal academics said in an interview that he’s a registered Republican.
  3. The actual exam question was provided by the university and reads as follows:

    “The American government campaign to attack Iraq was in part based on the assumptions that the Iraqi government has ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ This was never proven prior to the U.S. police action/war and even President Bush, after the capture of Baghdad, stated, ‘we may never find such weapons.’ Cohen’s research on deviance discussed this process of how the media and various moral entrepreneurs and government enforcers can conspire to create a panic. How does Cohen define this process? Explain it in-depth. Where does the social meaning of deviance come from? Argue that the attack on Iraq was deviance based on negotiable statuses. Make the argument that the military action of the U.S. attacking Iraq was criminal.”

  4. The student did not receive an F, and that although the instructions on the test said that answers were supposed to be at least three pages long, the student submitted only two pages on this question. Reynolds said there were clearly non-political reasons for whatever grade was given.
  5. Reynolds said that the student never had to even answer this question. The test, she said, had four questions: two required questions and two others (including the disputed one) from which a student needed to select one.
  6. Robert Dunkley, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northern Colorado who was identified by Horowitz as the professor involved, said in an interview with Jaschik that politics had nothing to do with the student’s grade, and that the context of his course has been distorted. For instance, Dunkley said that the course focused on the relationship between deviance and being classified as a criminal. “We talked in class about how George Washington was considered a war criminal to the British,” he said. “We were going into the idea that different people define criminal behavior differently.â€? And in case there’s any confusion, Dunkley wants it known that he does not think the father of our country was a war criminal. “I’m an American citizen and I thank God for George Washington. Without George, we wouldn’t be here.”

In a response to the Jaschik piece titled Correction: Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right Horowitz does not challenge any of Jaschik’s main findings. He says that he did not know any of these facts because he never spoke to the student concerned, never saw the exam, and had heard the essay story from an SAF intermediary. But he still asserts that he was right because: “the exam question is pretty much how the student remembered it without the text in front of her, and how we reported it.” And he continues “Until I hear from the student I have no comment on the matter of the grade but it is conceivable to me that if this were an “A” student and she received a “D” or even a “C” on this exam, in her mind it might as well be an “Fâ”. And, finally, it is quite plausible that since there were two required and two optional questions she might have been confused as to which were which.”

I will leave it to the reader to judge whether the so-far undisputed facts of the case as unearthed by Jaschik and others (that this story was not given as testimony at the Colorado hearings, the essay was not required, the essay prompt was long, nuanced, and complex, the student was not given an F, and whatever grade was given involved other factors than political point of view) is compatible with Horowitz’s translation of it as: “Among the evidence presented at this December hearing was testimony from a student at the University of Northern Colorado who told legislators that a required essay topic on her criminology mid-term exam was: “Explain why George Bush is a war criminal.” When she submitted an essay explaining why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal instead, she was given an “F.””

In my original op-ed piece I compared this story to the myth of the ‘welfare queen’ and I think the comparison still stands. Ronald Reagan kept telling us about the woman who allegedly wore mink coats and drove a Cadillac to pick up numerous welfare checks under assumed names. The fact that you can probably find some poor woman somewhere who has chiseled the welfare system by getting money under a false name does not make the ‘welfare queen’ story true. It is the vividness of the details that make the story so compelling. Take away all the details, as in the case of the current essay story, and what you have is another case of student dissatisfaction with an essay grade. While unfortunate, and undoubtedly distressing for those who are directly involved, it is hardly worthy of nationwide media attention.

What is surprising is that given its shaky foundations, this story should have been flogged so relentlessly and unquestioningly in the media. Media Matters reports:

Other publications have cited the alleged incident, including The Christian Science Monitor; The New York Sun (registration required); and an op-ed on, the website of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, by Brian C. Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Horowitz also referenced this story twice during an online chat session on “Colloquy Live,” hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. In the course of the chat session, a person who identified himself as a teacher from the University of Northern Colorado questioned the need for Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” to which Horowitz responded, in part: “Isn’t your school the one where a criminology professor assigned a paper ‘Why George Bush is a war criminal’? I think you have problems.”

So there things stand. But given the speed with which things are moving, this posting may be already out of date. Media Matters just released another report on this topic. (And an even more recent report here)

Footnote: There is a small feature to this story that puzzles me. Horowitz in his March 15 response goes to some lengths to say that he did not know the name of the professor until Jaschik told him (“until Jaschik’s article I had no idea who the professor was” and “This professor “whose name I now have learned is Dunkley”). But Jaschik says that Dunkley’s name was given to him by Horowitz himself a day earlier on March 14 (“Horowitz provided Dunkley’s name to Inside Higher Ed Monday, based on a request that he provide more information about the Northern Colorado incident”).

This discrepancy might not signify anything but it is a curious contradiction nonetheless.


Today (Thursday, May 17) in the Guilford Parlor from 11:30-1:00pm there will be a forum on Ohio’s Senate Bill #24 (the so-called academic bill of rights. I will be on the panel along with Professor Mel Durschlag (Law), Professor Jonathan Sadowsky (History), and Professor Joe White (Political Science).

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