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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2002

Muzzling Civil Society

Victor Catano
This September marks the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center by terrorists. Like the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger explosion, the memories associated with that event will forever be with us. Years from now we will be able to recall with clarity where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news of the attack and the subsequent bravery of those who plowed through the rubble in search of survivors.

What we may not recall in the future is that the aftermath of 9-11 brought with it a sustained attack on academic freedom with the objective of silencing critics of U.S. foreign policy. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is headed by Lynne Cheney, the wife of U.S. Vice-president Dick Cheney has spearheaded this attack. Shades of Joe McCarthy, this group has published lists of academics who, in their opinion, have made statements deemed to be unpatriotic.

American college and university presidents have been quick to take action against academics who have spoken out against U.S. policies. For example, Professor Sami Al-Arian was fired from the University of South Florida for remarks made a decade ago and rebroadcast after Sept. 11. Journalists who raised questions about U.S. actions leading to the attack on the World Trade Center soon found themselves unemployed.

These tactics have been effective - witness the silence of academics as the U.S. prepares for a possible war against Iraq. To protect free speech and academic freedom in the U.S., we have to suppress it!

The U.S. is not alone in taking these actions. In other countries, academics have been jailed or murdered for expressing their views.

In Mexico, 16 American students and their professor were expelled from the country after they joined Mexican teachers in a march on International Workers' Day.

In Egypt, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and human rights activist, has been sentenced to seven years in prison on grounds of embarrassing the government for his attempts to register voters, monitor elections and report attacks on Coptic Christians.

In Pakistan, Dr. Habibullah Ziaee, a professor at the Islamic University of Islamabad was arrested without any reasons being given for his arrest. His current whereabouts are unknown, with the suspicion that he will be forcibly returned to Iran where his safety will be at risk.

In Israel, security forces closed the administrative offices of Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh, a moderate Palestinian leader, an action termed "mournful and foolish" by an Israeli cabinet minister.

At Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a bomb attack, along with maiming and killing students, shattered a sense that this university was an oasis, a sanctuary from daily violence, open to Jews and Arabs, as well as foreign students.

Regrettably, some academics have also undermined the academic freedom of their colleagues. In response to the Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the end of March, some academics have refused to collaborate with Israeli colleagues. In one case two Israeli academics were dismissed from their positions of editorial board members of a U.K.-based journal because of their Israeli nationality.

All of these actions run counter to the UNESCO Declaration on the Rights and Freedoms of Higher Education Teaching Personnel. The UNESCO document states that academic staff, like all other groups and individuals, should enjoy recognized civil, political, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens and that all academic staff should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement and not be penalized, hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are the cornerstones of any democratic society. We academics must be prepared to defend both, lest freedom become "just another word when there's nothing left to lose." CAUT was born in a struggle for academic freedom in the Harry Crowe case and we continue today to protect the rights of academics to teach and to do research without deference to the accepted political, religious or commercial interests.