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Group tries to stop Al-Arian speech

It seemed for a brief moment that problematic USF professor Sami Al-Arian might be asked for the second time to leave a university campus.

But a Washtenaw County Michigan Circuit Court judge decided Thursday that there was no reason why that should happen.

Judge Melinda Morris chose not to hear arguments on a suit filed by two students against the University of Michigan, according to Deborah Schlussel, the students’ lawyer.

The students, who are affiliated with the Michigan Student Zionists, filed the suit in an attempt to keep Sami Al-Arian and other controversial speakers from participating in the Second National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement. The conference will be hosted by the group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, known as SAFE, which has called for investors nationwide to stop doing business with Israel until Palestinian oppression ends.

Schlussel said the judge’s decision, among other things, stated the students did not have any legal standing to sue. She said she disagrees because the suit was filed because Jewish students do not feel safe having Al-Arian and the other conference speakers on campus.

“We think his audience is very receptive to violence,” Schlussel said. “It’s obviously like adding a match to a powderkeg.”

University of Michigan officials have stood behind what they term as SAFE’s First Amendment right to meet.

Schlussel said the administration is acting in a cowardly fashion. She said the issue is about possible violence that may stem from the conference.

“These people are clearly not protected by the First Amendment,” Schlussel said.

Eric Reichenberger, a spokesman for SAFE, said the lawsuit was not about possible violence against Jewish students. He said pro-Israeli students simply do not want the conference to take place.

“I think their motives are just to try and stifle the debate,” Reichenberger said. “Anybody that’s opposed to their views, (they) want to try and stifle them.

“It’s absurd. It goes against every principle of freedom of speech.”

Reichenberger said, contrary to Schlussel’s assertion that Jewish students feel unsafe, that on occasion, SAFE members are themselves ridiculed on campus.

But Schlussel maintains that the conference will create an anti-semitic atmosphere.

The two students she represents are Adi Neuman and Richard Dorfman. Dorfman said Thursday he had appeared on an episode of CNN’s show Talkback Live to discuss the case. He said he feels Al-Arian is anti-semitic, and that he has ties with the terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Dorfman said he, like Schlussel, is worried about the possibility of trouble that may arise from the visit of Al-Arian and the other speakers, all of whom he said have encouraged violence. Dorfman said, contrary to Reichenberger’s claims, his goal is not to halt the conference.

“We are attempting to stop violence while encouraging the conference to continue,” Dorfman said. “We respect and encourage their fundamental right to spread what their message is.”

Dorfman said the consequences for allowing Al-Arian and the others on campus may be far-reaching.

“The university is going to suffer. They’re going to lose a lot of alumni dollars,” he said.

Dorfman said he is planning to engage in a “massive protest” at the event this weekend. Reichenberger said he is happy the university is standing behind SAFE’s right to free speech and that, in that same vein, he encourages Dorfman to protest.

“They’re welcome to protest,” Reichenberger said. “They’re allowed to have their views just as we’re allowed to have our views.”

Al-Arian traveled to Michigan Thursday to speak that evening about academic freedom at Michigan’s law school. The address, which Dorfman called inappropriate but did not protest, is separate from the conference.

Al-Arian said he will be speaking at the conference about “divestment,” which is the term used for the non-violent form of resistance against Israel. The same tactic was used in apartheid South Africa, he said.

Al-Arian said the lawsuit is meant to take away from the issues of the conference.

“It’s so obvious and so clear to us that they’re trying to stop the conference because it’s successful,” Al-Arian said. “(They want to) divert attention to change the subject.”

Alongside Al-Arian at the conference will be Jewish leader Adam Shapiro, who made headlines earlier this year for spending a night in Yasser Arafat’s compound to support the Palestinian cause.

Al-Arian said he encourages debate from those who disagree with his views about the Middle East.

“That’s the nature of the university,” Al-Arian said. “That’s what academic freedom (is about).”

As for the support given by the University of Michigan administration in the case, Al-Arian said he is pleased the university is protecting free speech.

“I’ve been received with open arms not just by universities but by university presidents,” Al-Arian said.

Dorfman said part of the basis of his lawsuit stems from the aftermath of a speech given about a month ago by Al-Arian at the University of California-Berkeley. He said anti-semitic violence erupted following Al-Arian’s address.

Dorfman said that event had been researched by Schlussel, who had written a newspaper editorial on the subject. Schlussel said more than 50 incidents of anti-semitic violence stemmed from Al-Arian’s Berkeley appearance, and that Al-Arian and the other conference speakers have in the past encouraged killing.

Reichenberger attended Al-Arian’s Thursday address, and said that such a statement is far from the truth.

“I just stepped out of a speech by Dr. Al-Arian, and he’s not in the least bit (inciting violence),” Reichenberger said. “(Dorfman and others) are constantly trying to call us names, throwing rhetoric around about hate in order to silence all of us.”

Laurence Michalak, vice chairman for the Center for Middle Easter Studies at UC-Berkeley, said he attended Al-Arian’s lecture and said that it was a purely academic affair without a hint of violence.

“That’s absurd,” Michalak said. “I was there for the whole program. He gave a reasonable talk. Nothing in that program could be characterized as anti-semitic.”

Michalak said no violence occurred surrounding the event. He said that Al-Arian was responsible with his speech, presenting his opinions in an academic setting.

“Some people just don’t understand that you can respect Islam and that it’s not a terrorist religion,” Michalak said.

Dorfman said in addition to inciting violence, Al-Arian has used racial slurs against Jews. Al-Arian said he wants to concentrate on his opinion and not have attention diverted.

“This is a non-violent instrument to ending an occupation,” Al-Arian said.

Schlussel said the University of Michigan should follow the lead of USF in handling Al-Arian.

“On (USF’s) campus, he was banned and security concerns were cited,” Schlussel said. “We feel that’s the campus that knows him best.”

Schlussel said the only remaining recourse for her clients is to take the case to the court of appeals today. She said, however, she is doubtful that will change the result, and hasn’t decided whether she should move forward with the appeal.