University of South Florida Makes a U-Turn: FIRE and the Case of Sami Al-Arian

August 30, 2002

TAMPA, Fla., August 30, 2002—Vindicating FIRE’s position, the University of South Florida (USF) has abandoned its claim that negative reactions to Professor Sami Al-Arian’s otherwise protected speech constituted appropriate grounds to fire him. USF now has set forth charges of sanctionable and criminal behavior against the tenured professor of computer science, against which he now must have the opportunity to defend himself in an appropriate and impartial forum. USF now bears a substantial burden of proving the serious charges it has lodged against its faculty member.

On September 26, 2001, Sami Al-Arian, an outspoken Palestinian activist, appeared on the television program The O’Reilly Factor. The host represented Al-Arian as sympathetic to (and possibly involved with) terrorist activity, which Al-Arian denied. USF claimed that it received numerous death threats as well as angry calls from donors and alumni complaining about the program and about the professor’s tenure at USF. In December 2001, USF sought to fire Al-Arian on the grounds that outside responses to his views had created too great a “disruption.” Firing Al-Arian would have granted a “heckler’s veto” (in this case, a “thug’s veto”) to his critics. FIRE vigorously opposed this fatal assault on academic freedom.

Last week, on August 21, 2002, USF President Judy Genshaft announced that the University was changing its claims in its effort to dismiss Al-Arian. USF now charges that Al-Arian engaged in a pattern of sanctionable and criminal activity by aiding terrorists and financing their activities. The University has also filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court, requesting the guidance of the Court as to whether or not their new rationale for terminating Al-Arian, assuming it can be proven, would violate his constitutional rights.

“This new set of charges is a complete about-face by USF,” said Harvey A. Silverglate, codirector of FIRE. “In response to pressure from FIRE and other groups, USF has backed away from its previous and untenable justification for dismissing Professor Al-Arian. If such a rationale had been accepted, it would have been the end of academic freedom, because it would have given anyone willing to make death threats the power to determine who gets to exercise the right of free speech on a university campus.”

Silverglate added, “By making specific and, in some cases, criminal charges, USF is unmistakably renouncing the heckler’s veto arguments it made earlier in seeking to justify last year’s termination of Professor Al-Arian. This means that all parties involved will now directly address the heart of this controversy—whether Professor Al-Arian engaged in anything that would justify his dismissal by a public university that must honor the First Amendment.”

While the change in USF’s approach avoids the thug’s veto of its previous justification, issues of due process still remain. The Court has been asked to decide if the charges would, if proven, be sufficient to terminate Al-Arian. If the Court decides that USF is not precluded from firing him, then, Silverglate noted, “USF will have the burden of proving the truth of its allegations in a hearing at which Al-Arian would be accorded due process. FIRE has no special knowledge and hence no position on the truth or falsity of the charges of criminal conduct made against Professor Al-Arian.”

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:
Harvey A. Silverglate, FIRE: 617-523-2933; has@thefire.org
Greg Lukianoff, FIRE: 215-717,3473; greg@thefire.org
Judy Genshaft, President, USF: 813-974-2791; jgensha@admin.usf.edu

Schools: University of South Florida Cases: University of South Florida: The ‘Heckler’s Veto’