What do Sami Al-Arian, Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky have in common? They use (or used) their tenure at a university to make bold statements — with varying results. While Al-Arian is in prison awaiting trial, Churchill is facing termination of his tenure and Chomsky is a best-selling author touring the lecture circuits. Apparently academic free speech does not mean the same everywhere. It cannot be the rule that it is only permissible when their respective universities approve.
Churchill made headlines when he compared office workers that died in the World Trade Center during the attacks of Sept. 11 with Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was instrumental in organizing the genocide committed on Jews, gays and others by the Nazi regime in Germany.
Al-Arian was a professor at USF who had been videotaped shouting “death to Israel” and allegedly funded terrorism, a claim that was based on circumstantial evidence and remains unproven as his trial remains outstanding.
Chomsky is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a best-selling author of books such as Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (The American Empire Project). In his books and lectures, he routinely portrays the United States as an imperialistic force that throws democratic values overboard whenever it impinges its interests.
All three are controversial. The difference is only how the respective universities, where the professors teach or taught, perceive such controversial stances. If the university approves, their free speech is protected. If not, they are fired.
The case of Al-Arian remains unresolved. The matter is so complicated it can hardly be explained in a satisfactory fashion in this space. Yet his case bears similarities to the controversy surrounding Churchill as well as Chomsky’s fame: Their statements, no matter how controversial, are protected by academic free speech. Their questioning of the status quo is a principle of both academic discourse and by extension of our democracy.
Professors must be allowed to explore topics in the way they see fit. After all, if the free thinkers of our society will not ask the tough questions, who will?