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FIRE and Constitutional Rights at the University of South Florida

On February 20, 2003 the United States Department of Justice issued a 50-count indictment against University of South Florida (USF) Professor Sami Al-Arian on charges related to terrorism. USF would be wholly within its rights to suspend Al-Arian, with pay, pending the adjudication of these grave charges, and to remove him for cause if he is found guilty.

In January of 2002 USF dismissed the tenured professor on the grounds that outside criticism of his views had created too much of a “disruption” to uphold what USF itself explicitly termed constitutionally “protected speech.” As FIRE noted at that time, a public university may not punish protected speech, and we urged, both privately and publicly, that USF not act unless and until it had offered charges of an actionable nature against Al-Arian.

In August of 2002, in a vindication of FIRE’s concerns for academic freedom, due process, and freedom of speech at this public university, USF changed its justification for firing Al-Arian. USF noted the importance of protecting academic freedom and then set forth charges of sanctionable and criminal behavior against Al-Arian, against which he was to have the opportunity to defend himself in an appropriate and impartial forum. Given USF’s original statement of grounds for dismissal, FIRE’s intervention helped to avert a legal and moral precedent that would have allowed college administrations to silence virtually any unpopular view on their campuses. Defeating USF’s original rationale for firing Al-Arian was vital to protecting all citizens’ liberty, on and off-campus.

No one in this nation is either a terrorist or criminal in the eyes of the state or of a state institution (including a public university) until charges have been appropriately brought and appropriately adjudicated. Those who do not protect the rights of people prior to appropriate charges and adjudication cannot be taken seriously when issues of free speech are raised. No one’s rights before charges and a trial are determined by a guess at the probable or possible outcome of a rightful hearing.

From the start, FIRE has taken no position on the guilt or innocence of Professor Al-Arian. We have defended constitutional rights. Defending someone against arbitrary authority—whether it is lynching or inappropriate dismissal—does not mean that one believes the person innocent, but that one believes in the rule of law, trial by jury, and the civilized protections of a civilized society. Our position always has been that if USF—or anyone else—had evidence of criminal activity, it should turn that over to the federal authorities, and if such evidence established probable cause, there should be charges that should be adjudicated in a court of law. Such charges cannot and should not be adjudicated in the office of a college president.

There had been no such indictment at the time of Al-Arian's dismissal. Now, there will be an appropriate adjudication of the indictment. Given the gravity of the charges, USF would be wholly within its rights to suspend Al-Arian with pay pending the outcome of a trial. The presumption of innocence is an essential part of American liberty.

There are those who favor different legal rules for what they deem good or evil. In Robert Bolt's magnificent play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More told a prospective son-in-law why he would give protection of the laws to the devil himself. The laws are broad trees that protect us from the elements, More explained, and if one cut down those trees to get at the devil, where would any of us stand when the winds blew strong?

FIRE assumes that a court of law will reach the legal truth in the matter of Sami Al-Arian. That is how things work in this great and free nation. We are not prepared to live with the anarchy or immorality of dispensing with a Constitution whose limitations on power, whose decencies, and whose notions of individual rights have both stood the test of time and protected this magnificent republic.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

February 25, 2003

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