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Columbia Embroiled in Academic Freedom Controversy; FIRE Defends Student Expression

NEW YORK, January 11, 2005—For the last few months, Columbia University has been debating charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against professors in the university’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) entered the debate with a letter that defended the MEALAC faculty and argued that students had dramatically limited rights to dissent from campus orthodoxy.

Now, at the request of members of the Columbia community, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has weighed in with a letter reminding Columbia President Lee Bollinger that academic freedom is not just for professors but also for students, and that those who attend or support Columbia have the right to oppose what they see as abuses or indoctrination by any of Columbia’s departments or professors.

“As one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal-arts universities, Columbia has a responsibility to respect the freedom of students to protest what they feel is ideological bias by their professors,” remarked David French, president of FIRE. He continued, “Columbia also has a responsibility to students, donors, and the public to be open and honest about a department’s political agenda, if any, and to let them decide whether to continue to attend or support the institution.”

The hotly disputed accusations against Columbia’s MEALAC department were brought by a documentary film entitled Columbia Unbecoming, produced by a group called the David Project.  In the film, fourteen current and former Columbia students describe incidents of what they feel is anti-Israel bias in the MEALAC department.  For instance, one student who had been a member of the Israeli Defense Forces relates an incident in which a professor would not answer the student’s question until the student revealed how many Palestinians he had killed.  However, the professor, Joseph Massad, denies the incident ever took place.  More about the controversy can be found in these stories in the New York Daily News here and here, and in New York Magazine here.

On December 8, 2004, President Bollinger convened an ad hoc panel to investigate the incidents described in the film and to establish a standing panel and grievance procedure for future claims of student intimidation.  Read President Bollinger’s response to the situation here.

On December 20, the NYCLU wrote President Bollinger in support of the professors accused of bias, saying that “faculty members must retain broad latitude to think as they will and to write as they think and to suffer no recriminations, from outside the academy, for the content of their scholarship.”

“While we agree with the NYCLU that professors must be free to think, write, and teach freely, faculty members do not have the right to ‘suffer no recriminations’ for their opinions,” noted FIRE’s French.  “The professors must not be punished for their viewpoints, but to say they are immune from student or public criticism or protest is to discount the rights of those who hold differing opinions.”

FIRE’s January 10, 2005, letter contains a comprehensive discussion of the interaction of student, faculty, and institutional academic freedom.  “FIRE’s letter represents a call for honesty and consistency.  We hope this letter will be read by all those interested in academic freedom at our nation’s private universities,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities.  FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Columbia University and on campuses across America can be viewed at


David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

Lee Bollinger, President, Columbia University: 212-854-9970;

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