By Anita Kumar at St. Petersburg Times
USF says it can prove that professor Sami Al-Arian has ties to terrorists and asks the court to determine whether firing him would violate his constitutional rights.
TAMPA — For months, it appeared that the University of South Florida was prepared to fire professor Sami Al-Arian for things he said and did after Sept. 11.
On Wednesday the university dramatically changed course, saying it can prove that for 14 years Al-Arian has had ties to terrorists that have seriously damaged USF.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, USF accused Al-Arian of raising money for terrorist groups, bringing terrorists into the United States, founding organizations that supported terrorism and inciting people to break the law, “thereby aiding and abetting international terrorism.”
“I’ve always felt there was a bigger issue,” said Dick Beard, chairman of the USF board of trustees. “The lawyers finally came to the conclusion that is what this case is all about.”
The lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, asks a judge to determine whether firing the Palestinian professor would violate his constitutional rights.
“After all I have seen and heard, I believe that Dr. Al-Arian has abused his position at the university and is using academic freedom as a shield to cover improper activities,” USF president Judy Genshaft said in announcing the new development.
Genshaft was widely expected to fire Al-Arian for violating his contract. But the university, already the target of anger from both sides of the Al-Arian debate, risked even more controversy over academic freedom and the consequences of free speech.
The new strategy buys USF time, but triggers a long and costly legal fight. It also forestalls censure by the American Association of University Professors that could harm USF’s reputation nationally.
Genshaft plans to fire Al-Arian if Judge Vivian Maye decides the university is on solid legal ground. Should the judge decide otherwise, the university could find itself in a bind. It’s a risky strategy, Beard said.
“The university has committed itself to the termination of Dr. Al-Arian and Dr. Al-Arian has said if you do that you’re violating my First Amendment rights,” said USF attorney Bruce Rogow. “We’re asking the judge to decide those issues.”
Al-Arian, 44, already under federal investigation and banned from campus for almost a year, learned of the lawsuit just before Genshaft made the announcement at 10 a.m. He watched it on TV from his attorney’s office.
“It’s still a case of academic freedom,” Al-Arian said. “That hasn’t changed. It’s just an indication of how politicized the university has become.”
The university threatened to fire the computer science professor last year after allegations that he has ties to terrorists were aired on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor a few weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Genshaft’s stated reasons at the time: disrupting the university, speaking on behalf of the school when he shouldn’t have and going on campus after he had been barred. Those charges are overshadowed by the new allegations.
“The university has made a complete about-face,” said Thor Halvorssen, executive director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia. “This is a huge step back and an admission of what they did last year was a big mistake.”
Genshaft read a statement at a packed news conference and then slipped into her office, leaving lawyers to answer questions.
Al-Arian, who remains on paid leave while the case continues, said little Wednesday. He scheduled a news conference today.
“Although we are disappointed, we are not surprised by president Genshaft’s decision to expand the university’s case against Dr. Al-Arian and, by so doing, to move ever closer to terminating his employment,” Robert McKee, Al-Arian’s attorney, said in a statement. “These ‘new charges,’ like those filed last December, are without merit.”
Most of USF’s accusations have been swirling for years, but USF attorneys say they can now prove them using previously classified documents that they have not released.
The allegations include:
On Feb. 1, 1995, 10 days after a double suicide bombing by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad that killed at least 18 people, Al-Arian requested money so that operations “such as these” could continue.
In late 1991, Al-Arian appointed Ramadan Abdullah Shallah a director of an organization he founded, World Islamic Studies Enterprise. Shallah later left and became director of the Islamic Jihad.
Al-Arian’s Islamic Committee for Palestine held its first conference in 1988, during which he advocated “Death to Israel” and the damning of America. For at least one of those conferences in December 1991, he used USF’s name in booking the event and raised money for causes associated with terrorist activities.
Al-Arian has repeatedly denied being a terrorist or advocating violence against innocent victims. He blames the news media for fueling anti-Muslim fervor after Sept. 11 and for spreading misinformation.
He was under federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected WISE was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists. In February, federal authorities announced, without elaboration, that Al-Arian remained under investigation.
Genshaft put Al-Arian on paid leave from his $67,000-a-year post after the O’Reilly Factor and announced that she intended to fire him, after the USF board of trustees voted 12-1 to recommend it.
USF’s team of four attorneys stressed Wednesday that Al-Arian was not being fired because of his TV appearance. Rather, they said, the TV appearance prompted the school to reinvestigate Al-Arian’s activities.
In 1996, prominent Tampa lawyer William Reece Smith spent three months investigating allegations that Al-Arian was tied to terrorists and found no evidence to support the charges.
USF attorneys said Wednesday that Smith did not have access to many of the documents they now have and could not have proven the terrorist links. Smith declined to comment Wednesday.
The new legal strategy was first discussed in January but was dismissed. Attorneys then prepared several alternatives, though Beard said Genshaft didn’t make her final decision until Tuesday.
The university received more than 1,000 letters and e-mails last fall both supporting and criticizing Genshaft’s decision to put Al-Arian on leave and, later, her intent to fire him.
Last week, she met with Gov. Jeb Bush, who supported the firing last year. Beard notified Education Secretary Jim Horne and Phil Handy, the chairman of the Florida Board of Education, about the decision Tuesday night.
“It’s a good thing for everybody that they decided to be straightforward about it,” said Roy Weatherford, president of USF’s faculty union. “But it sets a bad precedent potentially because other colleges and universities might start filing lawsuits against their faculty.”
Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said he was surprised by Genshaft’s decision and appreciated that her decision not to dismiss him outright took courage. But he said that the case has gone on too long, and that he was dismayed Al-Arian still has not been given due process.
The association will issue a final report after Genshaft makes her decision. Any action, such as censure, would not occur until next summer.
“We do not see anything that would alter our position,” he said.
No one has been fired at USF in at least six years, though there have been some negotiated settlements. USF has 38,000 students and 1,454 teaching faculty members, 802 of whom are tenured.
— Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
“After all I have seen and heard, I believe that Dr. Al-Arian has abused his position at the university and is using academic freedom as a shield to cover improper activities.”
– JUDY GENSHAFT, University of South Florida president
“Although we are disappointed, we are not surprised by president Genshaft’s decision to expand the university’s case against Dr. Al-Arian and, by so doing, to move ever closer to terminating his employment. These ‘new charges,’ like those filed last December, are without merit.”
– ROBERT MCKEE, Sami Al-Arian’s attorney
“Having the controversy brought to court is the best decision Judy Genshaft could have made, politically speaking. The university is a state institution, so therefore she is bringing it before the state judicial panel to have it decided by the highest state authority to what should happen so that ensures that no constitutional rights are broken. She’s not letting there be slack or leeway about it in bringing this to the highest authority.”
– GREGORY THOLE, USF junior
“I’m happy he wasn’t fired. I’m disappointed that the decision has just been prolonged. It just seems like another tactic to drag things out.”
– ELIZABETH BIRD, USF professor who resigned her job as faculty adviser to the provost in December because of the administration’s handling of the Al-Arian case
“The university is using the post Sept. 11 hysteria to get rid of him. They are adding in the word ‘terrorism’ to make it look worse. People who don’t know about the case will hear that word and have a judgment on it.”
– WEEAM HAMMOUDEH, USF freshman and Muslim Student Association member
“Certainly, we have academic freedom but we don’t have the freedom to do anything we want. Teachers, in general, are held to a higher standard and that’s the way it is.”
– GENE NESS, USF biochemistry professor
“This is reassuring in that it postpones the decision to fire him, though it postpones the inevitable. But I don’t understand the logic of this solution.”
– SUSAN GREENBAUM, USF anthropology professor