UCLA Professor’s Link to Boycott Website Sparks Controversy

By on April 26, 2012

University of California, Los Angeles, associate professor David Shorter’s link to a website supporting a boycott of Israel has sparked controversy over academic freedom. The Daily Bruin has the basic facts: 

David Shorter, an associate professor of world arts and cultures, was the subject of a late March complaint from an organization of University of California faculty that fights anti-Semitic sentiments on college campuses. The organization, AMCHA Initiative, decried that Shorter had linked his course website to a campaign calling for a boycott of Israel.

The chair of the Academic Senate responded to the complaint by saying that Shorter was counseled to not use the link again. But Shorter said he has not agreed to do so, and was only approached informally about the issue.

During winter quarter, Shorter taught a class titled "Tribal Worldviews." The class focused on "native people’s worldviews as they are expressed through language, mythology, ritual, health practices, languages and ecology," according to the syllabus.

As part of the class materials, Shorter posted a link to a site advocating for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Currently, he is also listed on the site as one of the endorsers of the boycott.

His status as an endorser, as well as a complaint from a student who dropped the course, led AMCHA to file a complaint with the university’s Academic Senate and other UC officials on March 29.

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Shorter also said he discusses the issue in context during his lectures on the subject and that he points out areas where he disagrees with the boycott and discusses his evolving stance on the matter.

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Shorter said the link to the boycott was intended as a resource for a research paper on Gaza, and was to be understood through the lens of indigenous studies.

The essay on Gaza was not a required assignment, Shorter said. It was one of four possible topics for a class research paper. 

Following AMCHA’s complaint, however, The Daily Bruin reports that Andrew Leuchter, chair of the UCLA Academic Senate, cautioned Shorter about the link:

In an email to AMCHA, Andrew Leuchter, chair of the UCLA Academic Senate, wrote that it was "not appropriate" for a UCLA faculty member to post a link as a course resource to a political petition of which he is a signatory.

Shorter was also warned that his affiliation with the boycott could be perceived as political advocacy. 

Shorter told The Daily Bruin that he has not yet received a formal complaint about the use of the link from AMCHA, the UCLA Academic Senate, or any other UCLA administrator. 

FIRE is monitoring the situation. Meanwhile, here’s the basic template for assessing complaints about course materials at public universities bound by the First Amendment or private universities that promise professors academic freedom and free expression: If the material in question (be it a reading assignment or a hyperlink on a course website) is relevant to the course’s focus, it’s likely protected. As the American Association of University Professors articulated the concept of academic freedom in its influential 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure:  

Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. … [College and university teachers] should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Fair enough. As we write in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus, "The standard of what language is ‘germane’ to the classroom will always remain a matter of contention and must be decided on a case-by-case basis," but "the principles of academic freedom serve to emphasize the particular importance of giving broad free speech rights to the academic environment." In other words, controversial classroom materials should not be grounds for discipline simply by virtue of being controversial. 

Responding to the complaint against Shorter, noted civil libertarian and author Glenn Greenwald writes in Salon:

But I want to leave to the side the obvious threats to academic freedom this poses. My real question is this: what kind of person goes to an academic institution and then demands to be shielded from political ideas that they find objectionable? Of all places, academia is supposed to permit and encourage the challenging of one’s assumptions and beliefs. At least in theory, that’s the prime value of studying at a university: learning how to think critically, which requires subjecting one’s views to rigorous dispute. The petulant entitlement needed to demand that nobody in that setting ever cite or mention objectionable political views is just staggering; it also reveals a severe lack of confidence in the validity of one’s own views.

As we’ve pointed out many times here on The Torch, the college campus is precisely the place where students and faculty should expect to encounter ideas different from (and yes, perhaps even opposed to) their own. We have an old saying here at FIRE: If you go to college for four years and are never once offended, you should ask for your money back. 

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles