Most people would be frightened, maybe even terrified.
Five local television cameras, complete with crew and anchor, news radio microphones and recorders, newspaper writers and photographers all crammed into a small meeting hall, poised and ready to hear what one man has to say.
And while most would shy from this situation, Sami Al-Arian handles it in a way that would make Ari Fleischer proud.
He points, he angles. He moves traffic through the room as expertly as a Hollywood director, looking for that perfect shot.
His supporters are lined up with him, all within the camera’s view. The American flag sits neatly behind him on the wall. He checks his watch, turns around and addresses the camera crews.
“Is everybody going live?” he asks. “Do we have to wait on anybody?”
He acts like a pro. He’s had to learn quickly. Since Aug. 21, when USF President Judy Genshaft made her surprise announcement that the university would seek litigation in the case, Al-Arian has been propelled into the national media spotlight. His story has been featured in the pages of the New York Times and Newsweek. He has appeared on an MSNBC show hosted by Phil Donahue, and a CNN show with Connie Chung, just to name a few. A quick search of the Internet reveals nearly 6,000 sites discussing his case.
But why has this story become nationally, and internationally, important?
Al-Arian said he feels the core of his case is the issue of free speech, important to Americans. He said people want to see whether he will be fired for speaking his mind. Such a move, he said, is unprecedented.
“I’ve been seeing that this case has become sort of a test case,” Al-Arian said.
His new position in the glow of the national spotlight has left him with mixed feelings though. He said, however, that he has accepted his role and the importance it presents.
“(I) feel a responsibility upon (me) to watch what I say and do,” Al-Arian said. “It’s a strange feeling. You don’t get used to this.”
But while Al-Arian has continued to make the rounds on the national media circuit, Genshaft has been noticeable in her silence. On the day of her announcement, she left the conference room without answering questions. Any inquiries during the subsequent weeks have not made it past USF’s media relations department. The answer given for Genshaft’s silence is that she has been advised by her attorneys not to speak to the media about the Al-Arian case.
Jordan Kurland, assistant general secretary for the American Association of University Professors, the group threatening to censure USF for violating Al-Arian’s academic freedom, said he has watched the case closely for months. He said it is impossible to speculate as to why Genshaft has chosen to remain silent.
“Whether the president would love to talk more, but her lawyers (won’t allow it), or whether she’s happy to say her lawyers don’t want her to talk about it, it’s (hard to say),” Kurland said.
But while Kurland said he could not speculate on Genshaft’s motivations, Al-Arian said he has an opinion on why the university president has been silent.
“My guess, she’s not happy with her decision,” Al-Arian said. “I think she was forced into it by the (USF Board of Trustees).”
Following the Round-Up pep rally in the Sun Dome last week, Genshaft reiterated that she would not talk about Al-Arian. She did, however, answer the question of how the university will repair an image impacted by negative national exposure.
“I think we just do what we do well … just do what we’re supposed to be doing,” Genshaft said. “And I don’t think we have a tarnished image.”
Al-Arian said he hopes USF is not hurt badly during the coming process. He said if he is reinstated he will repair damage caused by his case.
“I will contribute my part to help people understand,” Al-Arian said.
But while Genshaft has not spoken publicly about Al-Arian, USF Board of Trustees Chairman Dick Beard has been widely quoted. Beard has repeatedly called Al-Arian a terrorist. It is the BOT, not Genshaft, who are officially bringing the suit against Al-Arian.
Beard said the lawyers have asked him to remain quiet about the case. He said, however, his comments about Al-Arian’s terrorist ties do not affect the case.
“I’m not talking about the case,” Beard said. “I was just answering questions about before the case.”
Kurland said Beard’s comments have reverberated up to the AAUP’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“As to the chair of the Board of Trustees, we are aware of the fact that he’s made some unfortunately strong comments,” Kurland said.
As for the difference between Genshaft’s silence and Beard’s “unfortunate comments,” Kurland would only comment briefly.”It’s certainly inconsistent,” Kurland said.
Al-Arian’s has, through the past few months, repeatedly called Beard’s comments ridiculous. He said he will let a judge look into the matter.
“I don’t think I should resort to name-calling,” Al-Arian said. “(But Beard) is not an academic.”
Early in the Al-Arian case, the national media reported the reason for the professor’s departure from campus was repeated death threats sent to the university following his infamous appearance on The O’Reilly Factor television show. Could inflammatory comments from Beard draw death threats from Al-Arian supporters that would cause a similar situation? Beard said it would not be the same.
“I don’t know. I think it’s a different issue,” Beard said. “We (board members) don’t work on that campus. We (only visit) campuses.”
But Beard said his statements against Al-Arian will not change. And so it seems, as the time winds down toward a court date in the case, the war of words will continue, even as the president’s office refuses to fire its weapon.
And as the battle rages, USF will be judged in the collective mind of the nation. Al-Arian said that’s not a bad thing.
“I think it will affect (the case) positively,” Al-Arian said. “(It will make) the nation aware of the major problems at USF.”