Some really offensive ideas on campus

February 3, 2002

A university is a place of open inquiry, vigorous intellectual debate and untrammeled scholarly freedom. But during a national crisis, even universities sometimes take the position that if you can’t say the right thing, you should put a sock in it.

In past emergencies, the suppression of dissent has been commonplace and thoroughly popular. During World War I, pacifists, leftists and other opponents of the U.S. military effort were sent to prison for their trouble. President Nixon’s fury at the anti-war movement led to the abuses of the Watergate scandal. So it would not have been surprising to see a wave of intolerance after Sept. 11. The surprise is that across the country, despite the trauma, freedom prevailed.

Except at the University of South Florida, a public institution whose president is in the process of firing an Arab-American faculty member. Sami Al-Arian is a tenured professor of computer engineering who has made speeches expressing support for the Palestinian intifada. He has also invited to the campus Arab speakers who (unknown to him, he says) turned out to be terrorists.

But what finally earned him his notice of dismissal was going on the cable TV show “The O’Reilly Factor” and sounding sympathetic to Arab militants. Those sentiments not only got him abused by host Bill O’Reilly, which may be what you should expect if you go on his show, but also unleashed a flood of complaints to the university for harboring a dangerous radical. Alumni cut off contributions, trustees fumed and death threats were made. Locals started calling the school the “University of Suicidal Fanatics.”

Maybe it should be called the University of Silenced Faculty. In this case, most college presidents would have stepped forward, made it clear that they didn’t endorse the professor’s opinions, and then defended his right to express them.

That’s what happened at the University of Texas, where a journalism professor named Robert Jensen wrote an article about the terrorist attacks claiming the U.S. government had “engineered attacks on civilians every bit as tragic.” When he was swamped with complaints, President Larry Faulkner said Jensen was a “fountain of undiluted foolishness,” but firmly rejected demands that he be fired.

But Judy Genshaft, who presides at USF, won’t be featured in the next version of “Profiles in Courage.” She said she had to get rid of Al-Arian because he had done something to “disrupt the affairs of the university” and jeopardize “the safety of Dr. Al-Arian and students, faculty and staff around him.”

This is the moral equivalent of banning a peaceful civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. because a mob of thugs might decide to beat the marchers to a pulp. By this reasoning, it’s not the responsibility of Al-Arian’s critics to rebut his arguments calmly and rationally; it’s his responsibility to avoid saying anything that might upset them.

Of course, by the same logic, if Genshaft’s decision provoked violence by the professor’s supporters, then she would be obligated to let him stay. Otherwise she would be guilty of causing disruption to the school.

The professor, in any event, did nothing more than exercise his 1st Amendment right to speak his mind on a controversial issue. But when others took issue with him, the university decided the critics should have a veto over his right to speak. If this policy were followed consistently, professors would be permitted to express political opinions only if those opinions didn’t offend anyone.

For a public university to punish a professor in this way plainly conflicts with the 1st Amendment. “He was making a political statement,” says University of Chicago law professor (and former provost) Geoffrey Stone. “You can’t fire a public university professor for doing that.” But the administration insists it can dismiss Al-Arian because he violated his employment contract by failing to inform the TV audience that he was not speaking for USF.

Oh, please. Does anyone believe that if Sami Al-Arian had gone on TV, identified as a USF professor, and said, “God bless America,” he would have been canned for implicating the school in his views?

I see university professors being interviewed on TV all the time, and they never bother to say they aren’t speaking for their employers. The nature of what college professors do is such that almost everyone understands they speak only for themselves. This rationale is obviously one that is used by USF only when it’s convenient. Genshaft brags that 85 percent of the community supports her decision, which suggests that it’s very convenient.

But even in wartime, the Constitution doesn’t protect just freedom of popular speech, or the right to support the government, or the expression of political views that don’t make anyone mad. USF could do worse than to be known as a school that tolerates obnoxious opinions among its faculty. Right now, it is doing worse.

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