The Board of Trustees and USF President Judy Genshaft were accused of violating academic freedom Thursday.
Attorney and First Amendment expert David Cole said the reasons cited by Genshaft in pursuing the termination of tenured professor Sami Al-Arian were “transparently flimsy.”
In his lecture, “Academic Freedom and Civil Liberties In The Wake Of September 11,” Cole spoke about Al-Arian’s pending situation and the legal changes that occurred in the United States following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.Cole said Al-Arian’s case crystallized the changes that had occurred in the U.S. since Sept. 11.
“Before Sept. 11 Dr. Al-Arian was a popular professor here at the University of South Florida,” Cole said. “After Sept. 11, he has been told he will be fired. Not because he’s not a good professor, not because the students have complained about the quality of his work, but because, according to the university, he is a disruption: because controversial statements that he made a decade ago have led to other people threatening his life.”
Cole said the university had taken the easy option in firing Al-Arian.
“Instead of going after the people who have threatened his life, the university has decided to go after the victim,” Cole said.Cole said according to previous Supreme Court rulings, Al-Arian was innocent of incitement.
“People cannot be punished for advocating criminal activity unless the Supreme Court has said their speech is intended and likely to incite imminent lawless actions,” Cole said.
“‘Death to Israel,’ the statement that Al-Arian had been vilified for – clearly is protected speech.
“The irony here is that USF itself appears to be ready to sacrifice the very principle of academic freedom which universities themselves developed,” Cole said.
Cole said that the experience of Mazen Al-Najjar, the brother-in-law of Al-Arian, who is being held in solitary confinement despite the fact that he has never been charged, exemplified the treatment of non-citizens in the current climate.
“He’s now in solitary confinement, 23-hour-a-day lockdown,” Cole said. “This is a man who has not been charged with a crime. He is being held under conditions which are far worse than any convicted murderers.”
Cole said the United States, in balancing liberties against security in the wake of Sept. 11, has not sacrificed its own liberties but has instead sacrificed the liberties of non-citizens.
Cole said even by conservative estimates, there have been close to 2,000 people detained in connection with the investigation into Sept. 11. Of these, over 725 people have been held on immigration charges, their cases tried in complete secrecy.
“Their cases are closed to the public, closed to the press, closed to legal observers, closed to family members,” Cole said. “A U.S. citizen could be seeing her husband expelled from the country, and she doesn’t even have the right to attend the proceeding that could determine his fate.”
Cole said military tribunals were being used to take people out of the criminal justice system. He said although it was consistent with U.S. history to use tribunals for al-Qaida, the military tribunal order also applies to any non-citizen accused of an act of terrorism, even if there is no connection to al-Qaida.
Cole said the right to speak, to associate, the right to due process and the right to equal protection are rights of persons, not rights of citizens. But, he said these principles had never been more sorely tested in America than after Sept. 11.
Following the lecture a question-and-answer session was conducted.
Saleh Murbarak, an adjunct professor, said he was troubled by the U.S. government’s vague definition of terrorism.
Cole said the definition of a terrorist group was at the whim of the Secretary of State.
“If the Secretary of State says my speech threatens foreign policy then it does – the courts can’t review that,” Cole said.
Sophomore Jacqueline McCain asked whether Al-Arian violated the collective bargaining agreement.
Cole said the charge against Al-Arian, of not dissociating himself from the university, could be made against any professor at any university who has ever spoken to the media.
Junior Elida Sanchez said she agreed with the tenets of Cole’s lecture.
“Because of Sept. 11, all these laws are being passed unchallenged,” Sanchez said. “I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said ‘Those who give away their liberties for safety deserve neither safety or liberty.'”