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Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: ASA Boycott and NY State Legislature Both Threaten Academic Freedom

By February 3, 2014

Last December, members of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The action constitutes a “refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government.”

The ASA’s boycott has proven extremely controversial and has been sharply criticized by 134 members of the House of Representatives, more than 50 colleges nationwide, and the American Association of University Professors, which opposes all academic boycotts. As Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, wrote of the ASA’s action, “Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend … . [T]he whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded.” FIRE strongly agrees with Reichman’s assessment.

This past week, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would effectively deny state funding to institutions that support groups that boycott Israel. Specifically, the bill

prohibits any college from using state aid to fund an academic entity, to provide funds for membership in an academic entity, or to fund travel or lodging for any employee to attend any meeting of such academic entity if that academic entity has undertaken an official action boycotting a host country or its higher education institutions if the country subject of such boycott hosts a higher education institution chartered by the Board of Regents. Colleges violating this ban would not be eligible for state aid during the academic year in which the violation occurs.

Unfortunately, the New York State Senate’s action itself poses a threat to academic freedom. Generally speaking, legislative incursions into faculty decision-making harm academic freedom by substituting political judgments for those of academic professionals. Here, in seeking to provide legislative redress to the ASA’s boycott, the New York legislature’s measure would punish professors for the expression of their political views. However wrongheaded those views may be, government threats to withhold funding on the basis of protected expression raise serious First Amendment questions. Further, the bill passed by the State Senate is so broad as to be counterproductive, as it would prevent dissenting ASA members from making their case to their colleagues. For example, the Senate bill would prevent even those ASA members who voted against the resolution from receiving funding for travel to ASA meetings wherein they might seek to overturn the boycott.

As a growing chorus has pointed out, the ASA’s boycott threatens academic freedom. Disappointingly, so does the New York State legislature’s answer.

Image: New York State Assembly chamber – Wikimedia Commons