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Two Wrongs Still Don’t Make a Right: AAUP, NCAC Slam Maryland Anti-Boycott Bill

By March 6, 2014

Last month here on The Torch, I wrote about a misguided and dangerous bill presented in the New York State Legislature. The bill would have effectively denied funding to state universities that support academic groups that boycott Israel, as the American Studies Association had voted to do last December. As I explained, the bill would have compounded one threat to academic freedom—the ASA’s academic boycott—with another: legislative intrusion into academic decisionmaking and a restriction on protected political activity. It’s a classic case of two wrongs not making a right.

Since I last wrote, the New York bill stalled, and a revised but still problematic version has now been introduced. We’re keeping tabs on it here at FIRE. Unfortunately, while the New York bill’s prospects have dimmed, other states have decided to pursue their own misguided legislative attempts to counter academic boycotts of Israel. In Maryland, for example, the state legislature is considering two bills that would prohibit funding for faculty members’ travel or membership fees for associations that have passed academic boycotts against countries with which Maryland has ratified a “declaration of cooperation.” Failure to adhere to the bill’s restrictions would result in a three percent cut in total institutional funding.

To be clear, FIRE strongly opposes academic boycotts, as does the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). But the Maryland legislature’s attempt to answer the ASA’s misguided boycott isn’t helpful, and the same problems inherent in the New York bill are present here. What I wrote last month about the New York bill applies here, too:

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.

FIRE isn’t the only organization raising red flags with regard to Maryland’s proposed legislation. Yesterday, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the AAUP issued a joint statement sharply criticizing the Maryland proposal. In a press release announcing the statement, Henry Reichman—First Vice-President and Chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure—said:

“It makes little sense to defend the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars by denying such freedom to Israeli and American scholars via an academic boycott, but it makes even less sense to oppose such a boycott by restricting the academic freedom of scholars who may be members of a professional association that has favored such a boycott.”

The NCAC and AAUP point out that the Maryland legislation raises First Amendment questions because, as NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin states, “[F]aculty at state-supported colleges and universities have a constitutionally protected right to express unpopular political views, to associate with like-minded individuals, and to engage in collective political activities.”

Check out the entire NCAC and AAUP statement and stay tuned for more coverage here on The Torch.