The University of South Florida Betrays the Rule of Law: The “Thug’s Veto” and the Ongoing Case of Sami Al-Arian

January 29, 2002

TAMPA, Fla., January 29, 2002—The University of South Florida (USF) has decided to fire a tenured professor on the grounds that outside criticism of his views had created too much of a “disruption” to uphold his constitutional and moral rights of free speech and lawful political activity. Dr. Sami Al-Arian, an outspoken pro-Palestinian activist, was a guest on a cable news show where he was accused of having radical views, of having made radical statements in the past, and of having possible ties to terrorist groups. As a result of the television appearance, USF came under what it has described as intense public pressure. The University, in response, issued a notice of termination, choosing to dismiss Dr. Al-Arian, because it was too bothersome to defend his constitutional rights.

“This is not about Sami Al-Arian or his political views; this is about the devastation of free speech and academic freedom at USF and the destruction of constitutional protections at a public university,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “Officials at this public university apparently believe that they may overturn the Bill of Rights, fire a tenured professor, and end free speech on their campus because, as they proclaim, fundraising has been affected and they have received angry phone calls.” Professor Al-Arian submitted his case on FIRE’s website in December and was immediately linked, through FIRE’s legal network, to Jonathan Katz, an eminent First Amendment lawyer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Mr. Katz is currently advising Dr. Al-Arian on the constitutional claims in his case.

Dr. Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, has been a tenured professor of computer science at USF since 1992, having joined the faculty there in 1986. On September 26, 2001, Dr. Al-Arian appeared on the television program The O’Reilly Factor. On the program, the host represented Dr. Al-Arian as sympathetic to (and possibly involved with) terrorist activity, despite Dr. Al-Arian’s repeated denials. In fact, no charges ever had or have been brought against Dr. Al-Arian for such alleged activity, after extensive governmental and university investigations. In the wake of the interview, the University claims that it began to receive hate mail, death threats, and negative media attention. On December 19, with less than twenty-four hours’ notice, USF President Judy Genshaft called a meeting of the Board of Trustees. Immediately after the meeting, Genshaft formally announced her intention to fire Dr. Al-Arian, and USF sent him a termination letter. In her statement Genshaft claimed that Dr. Al-Arian’s presence constituted an intolerable “disruption” to campus operations, making his termination necessary.

Genshaft’s decision to fire Dr. Al-Arian drew widespread and immediate criticism. Bill O’Reilly, the host of The O’Reilly Factor on which Dr. Al-Arian had appeared, has himself condemned the firing on his program, calling on the administration to reverse its decision. In early January, a senior administrator resigned her position to protest the unlawful firing of Sami Al-Arian. On January 9 and 10, USF’s Faculty Union voted first to condemn Genshaft’s decision and then to offer financial and legal support to Al-Arian.

“Dr. Al-Arian himself has ’caused’ no ‘disruption’ whatsoever. The alleged disruption was caused by angry individuals outside of the University, who wished to see Professor Al-Arian sanctioned, fired, or harmed for his protected beliefs and affiliations,” Kors wrote to President Genshaft in a letter from FIRE.

In the same letter, Kors wrote:

The University cannot and must not remove a professor because some portion of the public demands it on the basis of his purported political beliefs, his protected associations, and other wholly unproven suspicions. To do so would allow a “heckler’s veto” and would open the floodgates to arbitrary firing of all professors when some individuals, especially individuals willing to portray themselves as criminals, decide that they do not like the way that a professor talks, thinks, or appears. Indeed, it would create a new category, the “USF thug’s veto,” which actively encourages the threat of violence to accomplish the dismissal of professors disliked by any portion of the public. This is not only unconstitutional, but, indeed, endangers the core of freedom at any institution of higher learning and the very rule of civilized law itself….You may not put an individual’s free speech rights, civil rights, and constitutional protections to a vote, whether that vote occurs through ballot box, public opinion, or donations. To do so would mean the death of the First Amendment. The defense of fundamental freedoms has always required fortitude and sacrifice. Our bravest men and women understand that. It is your duty to defend, vigorously, free speech, the First Amendment, and the United States Constitution.

“Holding unpopular or provocative views is not disruptive,” Kors said today. “Making death threats is disruptive. The administrators at USF should stand up for free speech and academic freedom. They should defend these principles from those who would silence views they dislike—especially when they seek to silence others through threats and intimidation. You call in the FBI and the Florida State Police; you don’t reward thugs by punishing the object of their threats.”

Kors also noted the denial of due process to Dr. Al-Arian. “USF’s kangaroo court violates fundamental principles of fairness and decency,” he said. “The most important due process right is the presumption of innocence, which USF manifestly violated by capitulating to the alleged vocal protests of those who have already judged Al-Arian. USF did not allow Al-Arian to face his accusers, did not provide him notice of the meeting to discuss his termination, and did not defend his rights under the Constitution of the United States.”

The breadth of any standard that allows termination when a university claims that a professor has “adversely affected its functioning” is truly chilling and would spell the end of free universities, and for public campuses, of the Constitution itself. USF, if sincere about its mission, should welcome intensive debate on timely and controversial matters. Instead, USF has deviated from both law and morality to silence debate and to appease the terroristic thugs who, USF claims, threatened Dr. Al-Arian. As we all have learned immeasurably in these recent times, a free society is a precious thing, not to be abandoned at any cost.

In the eloquent and infinitely patriotic U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a case decided in the the darkest days of World War II, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote for the Court, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not occur to us.” The officials of a state university are high or petty officials, covered by that decision, which speaks with the voice of liberty itself. FIRE calls for Professor Sami Al-Arian to be made whole and secure in his constitutional protections. USF must reverse its lawless decision.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, religious liberty, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve academic freedom and the Bill of Rights at the University of South Florida and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org
Judy Genshaft, President, USF: 813-974-2791; jgensha@admin.usf.edu
S. David Stamps, Provost, USF: 813-974-8347; dstamps@acad.usf.edu
Michael Reich, Director of Media Relations, USF: 813-974-9047; reich@admin.usf.edu
R. B. Friedlander, Interim General Counsel: 813-974-2131; usflegal@admin.usf.edu
Thomas Gonzalez, Counsel for USF: 813-273-0050
Dick Beard, Chairman, USF Board of Trustees: 813.221.7202; dbeard@trustees.usf.edu