Controversial professor Sami Al-Arian stands, speaking into a microphone, with a giant American flag draped behind him.
He wears a thoughtful look and a conservative suit.
Above him a large sign scrolls quotes from Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
To his left a sign calls for “Free Speech Now!” and below him, a scrolling image projects the rallying cry, “Reinstate Dr. Al-Arian.”
That image of an America-loving, First-Amendment-invoking Al-Arian has faced more than 5,000 visitors to a new Web site in support of the professor. For Al-Arian, who has long argued his controversial statements were protected by academic freedom, the site is aptly named .
Al-Arian, who taught computer engineering prior to his infamous appearance on The O’Reilly Factor television show, said he has contributed to the site, but that he is not the site’s creator.
“It’s really a group of (USF) students,” Al-Arian said. “They came to me with the idea, and they’ve been working on it for months.”
Al-Arian said he could not name the students who created the site because, he thought, as USF students in the current uncertain climate, they would like to remain unknown.
Al-Arian said the site has been active for a few weeks now. He said he feels the site is important because it provides visitors resources to understand what is happening in his case.
“Many people, when they ask (me questions), don’t have a good ground on the issues,” Al-Arian said. “All I have to do now is tell them to check that Web site. There is a lot of information on the case. A lot of it is not created by me but by others.”
A notable contributor to the site is the United Faculty of Florida, which officially supported Al-Arian’s right to academic freedom throughout the now 10-month ordeal.
The UFF’s contribution to the page include a “myths vs. facts” section and a link to the group’s Al-Arian site.
Arthur Shapiro, a senator for the USF chapter of the UFF, said he, personally, was unaware of the site. He said, however, the UFF is continually concerned with the principles involved in the Al-Arian case.
“The UFF is concerned about things like academic freedom (and) the First Amendment,” Shapiro said. “These are underlying bases of American democracy. These have to be adhered to.”
In addition to the UFF material, letters to USF President Judy Genshaft from individual USF faculty members are published on the site.
Michael Reich, director for media relations at USF, said questions from the UFF about Genshaft’s handling of the situation have been evident for some time.
“The union has a right to do what unions do,” Reich said. “They have a right to express their opinion.”
Reich said even though there have been faculty members in opposition to Genshaft, there are also many in support.
“I can’t add up the numbers. There certainly are quite a few. Even at the Faculty Senate meeting people were speaking up for the president’s decision,” Reich said. “The union has been vocal in their opposition but a large number of faculty are in support.”
In additional to faculty and community letters published on the site, the creators have included a selection of articles written about Al-Arian in local newspapers.
Also included are letters of support for Al-Arian from around the country. Those letters were written by professors and citizens, including Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counter-terrorism.
“You have essentially caved in to hysteria that is being promoted by some irresponsible media,” Cannistraro wrote, addressing Genshaft. “Your action is both a blow to academic freedom and, dare I say it, a cowardly act that reflects poorly on both the university and your own lack of convictions.”
Michael Levin of Berwyn, Ill., wrote, “It appears that the university’s action is both politically motivated and unconstitutional.”
Both men, however, had one key fact wrong. They mistakenly thought Al-Arian had been fired. Al-Arian was placed on paid leave. A decision on his fate, according to Genshaft, will come at some point in August.
Levin said, while he did not know of the Web site, he was pleased that his letter was published. He said he heard, and became interested in, the Al-Arian case from various sources.
“From my perspective, there is a threatening new McCarthyism in the air,” Levin said.
Levin said he felt he had to speak out against USF. He said he can sympathize with the case because of his Jewish upbringing.
“I grew up knowing what it was like having people discriminate against you,” Levin said. “Here’s where someone else, not in my religion, is censured for what he believes.”
Levin said the reason why he, and others who may be thousands of miles from USF, are interested in the case is because of its universal issues of freedom of speech.
“Not to be censured before charges are proved, that’s our whole system of speech,” Levin said.
Letters on the Web site are, as expected, all pro-Al-Arian. Reich said, however, there has been a lot of national support for Genshaft, as well. He said he is not surprised the issue has become important nationally.
“Obviously, the issue is a controversial issue as we’ve seen from the national media,” Reich said.
Reich said the large national university faculty response is probably due to the UFF’s widespread connections. He said Genshaft has received both supportive comments and comments such as the ones seen on the Web site. He said, however, the decision does not come down to those opinions.
“The decision, ultimately, isn’t about counting up votes,” Reich said.