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UC Santa Barbara investigates professor for anti-Israel e-mail

May 1, 2009

Academic freedom is once again in the news, this time because a professor at UC Santa Barbara is being investigated for sending his students an anti-Israel e-mail blast.

At the middle of the controversy is sociology professor William I. Robinson, a self-proclaimed "scholar-activist," who sent an e-mail comparing Israeli policy with that of the Nazis to 80 students in his Sociology of Globalization class. The e-mail, as the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, "compared graphic images of Jews in the Holocaust to pictures of Palestinians caught up in Israel’s recent Gaza offensive." It also included an article criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and remarks from Robinson ("Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw — a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians…We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide.").

The e-mails reportedly convinced two Jewish students to drop the class, and now the Anti-Defamation League, along with other organizations, have called for UC Santa Barbara to investigate Robinson. According to the LA Times, UC Santa Barbara has confirmed that an investigation is already underway.

What makes this case a little bit stickier than your average free speech on campus/academic freedom case is a point that might seem, well, academic. "Academic freedom" only protects a professor’s speech that is "germane" to the class’ subject. That’s a fancy way of saying that if a professor goes on rants about Perez Hilton, abortion, or the gold standard in his Physics 101 class, that professor cannot then argue that his off-topic musings were protected by academic freedom. Because the professor’s soliloquies on, say, the Octomom had nothing to do with physics, they fall outside the traditional notions of academic freedom and the professor is fairly subject to professional discipline.

Here, however, Robinson is teaching a class entitled Sociology of Globalization, which includes in its syllabus a section on "Transnationalism Migration/Globalization and Race/Ethnicity." As such, Robinson’s ferocious criticism of Israel’s handling of the Palestinians and Gaza is arguably within bounds.

And even if a professor’s speech is not precisely within the topic of the class, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has long argued that academic freedom doesn’t mean very much if it fails to provide some breathing room around the "germaneness" requirement.

For an example illustrating why this idea of "breathing room" is important, consider our case involving a professor in North Carolina who took some time out of her technical writing class to give her personal opinion on the war in Iraq. Now, if she had made a regular habit of detailing her feelings on the war at length during every class, there is little doubt she could be fired simply for not doing her job. Fair enough: students come to class to learn the subject being taught, and if the professor is constantly giving unrelated speeches, that’s a problem. But if every time a professor commented on a subject somewhat removed from the syllabus he or she was at risk of being fired, it wouldn’t be too hard to get virtually every professor in the country canned. For example, I imagine that on September 11, 2001, there were probably an awful lot of chemistry, poetry, and economics classes that took some time to talk about geopolitics, syllabus be damned.

In one of the better analyses of the Robinson situation that I’ve seen, David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy cogently argues that Robinson’s e-mail should not be protected by academic freedom. Nevertheless, Bernstein comes to the same ultimate conclusion I do, writing: "I don’t think this should be punished by a university, in part because it would create all sorts of complex line-drawing problems."

I also very much agree with Bernstein about the double standard at work when considering issues of academic freedom and free speech on campus. I have written several times here on the Huffington Post about what I think is one of the best examples of this: Tufts University’s decision to find a conservative student newspaper guilty of racial harassment for publishing unflattering yet verifiably true facts about Islamic extremism. The university refuses to this day to overturn the finding.

But the answer is not that Robinson should be found guilty of violating some speech code, too. Rather it is that universities should recognize the ground rules of free speech on campus: Open debate and candor are crucial, and while hurt feelings and offense are likely, that’s a small price to pay for marketplace of ideas. As Alan Wolfe observes in his own thoughtful piece on the situation at UCSB for The New Republic: "Whatever damage words and pictures can do is out-weighed by the arguments and discussion they provoke."

I don’t blame anyone for being angry about what Robinson wrote. In my work, however, I am constantly reminded that in a truly diverse and pluralistic society, if you allow what is offensive to one group to be censored, you effectively open the door to censoring all. And for the groups that are calling for the professor to be investigated, please keep in mind that the possibility of turning Professor Robinson into a free speech cause célèbre is real–and likely more damaging to your mission than any lone e-mail.

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Schools: University of California, Santa Barbara