Another forum for speech

Sami Al-Arian’s quest for reinstatement entered the world of cyberspace Wednesday as he participated in an online chat as a part of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Colloquy Live series.Al-Arian spent an hour fielding questions from students, professors and citizens from across the country.

During the chat, Al-Arian was presented with a question or a comment from the general public and was allowed to respond. His responses ranged in length from just a sentence to upward of three paragraphs. The questions came from those who supported as well as opposed Al-Arian.

Participants asked Al-Arian details of his situation. Among those were questions as to whether the university will lose money if it fires Al-Arian.

“I did get a grant letter from an ad agency whose name I don’t recall,” Al-Arian said. “They said that if I was fired, the university would not be eligible for grants in the future.”

Other participants expressed concern about Al-Arian’s possible extremist roots. One asked if Al-Arian has used his office as the return address for the Islamic Committee for Palestine. Al-Arian answered simply.

“I don’t recall ever using my office as a return address,” he said.

Another participant asked if Al-Arian had invited Sheikh Omar Abduhl Rahman to speak at a conference held by the Islamic Committee for Palestine. Rahman is a Muslim extremist who is reported to be revered by Osama bin Laden. Al-Arian responded that Rahman had appeared at the conference and gave a religious sermon.

Al-Arian said after the chat that his participation gave him a chance to see questions from both those who support and those who oppose of his views. It also gave him a chance to defend his arguments.

“I think sometimes you get your point across from a question that’s antagonistic,” he said. “You can show that the stance taken is based on misstatements and not on facts.”

Al-Arian said when he is able to talk to people directly, he feels he can cause them to view him more positively.

“Those people that know me have a positive view. Those that don’t have a negative view,” he said. “I think the more people that know me, (the more support there will be).”

Michael Reich, spokesman for USF, said that he had not watched the chat and was unaware if administration officials had been watching. He said the issue with Al-Arian is that he has caused a disruption to the university.

Reich said USF President Judy Genshaft has spent a lot of time on the disruptions caused by the Al-Arian case.

“At least half of her time is spent on this,” he said.

Reich said Al-Arian’s use of academic freedom as a cornerstone of his defense is unfortunate for the principle.

“To say anything a professor does falls under academic freedom weakens academic freedom,” he said.

Among the participants during the chat was Bob England, who teaches history at Northwest-Shoals Community College in Alabama. During the chat, England commented in favor of Al-Arian, comparing the situation to that of antebellum faculty at the University of Alabama who were forced to resign after coming out in support of the abolition of slavery. He said the situation must be observed in the context of history.

“In light of the history of dissent in this country, I cannot see how punishing a professor for what, at worst, is idiotic speech, serves any good purpose,” he said.

After the chat, England said he believes Al-Arian made a mistake, and that Al-Arian should have been prepared for the reaction of Americans in the current political climate.

“I think this guy may have exercised poor judgment,” England said. “This guy obviously should not be fired, but he sure got a valuable lesson on American inconsistency.”

England said he does not support Al-Arian’s arguments about the protection of speech and wonders why Al-Arian, a computer engineering professor, is speaking politically.

“I (cannot) see how academic freedom would cover his statements,” England said. “I can’t even spell engineering much less cover anything about it. The fact (Al-Arian spoke politically), that seemed kind of strange.”

England said Al-Arian should be forgiven because Americans have forgiven throughout history. He cited examples such as the few executions that took place for traitors after the American Revolution.

“The neatest thing about this country, we’ve always forgiven our enemies,” he said. “Robert E. Lee did not do a day of jail time and I don’t think he went against anything any more than your professor did.”

England said he believes persecuting individuals for making unwise comments is not in the best interests of the country. He said because of that Al-Arian should stay.

“I’m not sure this guy’s playing with academic freedom is going to wash,” he said. “But what I am sure is running him off doesn’t have anything to do with our tradition.”

Al-Arian faced about 25 questions and comments during the chat. Those whose questions were used in the chat included both USF employees and students, and professors and students from as far away as California and Chicago.

Scott Jaschik, editor for The Chronicle, said he felt the chat was successful for his publication.

“Our goals on this were just to let our readers interact with a newsmaker,” Jaschik said. “It met our goals because it let a lot of people ask him questions.”

Jaschik said there were more than 100 questions asked of Al-Arian, most of which could not be used due to time constraints. He said there were many more who watched but did not question.Sharon Walsh, who, as a reporter for The Chronicle, wrote an article for its Feb. 8 edition on Al-Arian, acted as moderator for the chat. She said she was impressed by the number of people who sent questions for Al-Arian.

“You take the questions as they come in and you try to select questions from both sides,” she said.

Walsh said equality in the questioning is sometimes difficult to maintain in online debates. She said the goal is to have the participant face both opinions.

“It’s not always equal,” Walsh said. “(But) I thought we had some good questions from both sides.”

As for Al-Arian’s performance in the chat, Jaschik and Walsh said it was not their place to comment.

“I leave that to our readers,” Jaschik said.

After the chat Al-Arian said he enjoyed the experience, and that it was a good forum for him to express his views.

“It was great,” Al-Arian said. “I think it’s always positive when you speak out.”

Al-Arian said the chat allowed him to educate the public on his situation. He said many people do not know the entire story, and the chat provided him with the opportunity to give his opinion.

“The more people know the facts of the matter, the more they are opposed (to the administration’s decision),” he said.

Those who did not see the chat live may read a full transcript at .

Late Wednesday, Genshaft and Provost David Stamps received a call from the American Association of University Professors. They were informed that the AAUP will come to campus to investigate the Al-Arian situation. After the call, Genshaft issued this statement: “We welcome the AAUP team to come to USF and look into this very complex situation. We have had cordial discussions with the AAUP and are pleased to have the opportunity to review our facts and data with such a respected body.”