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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2002

South Florida Seeks to Fire Controversial Prof

In an unprecedented move, the University of South Florida is asking the courts to rule on the constitutionality of a controversial plan to fire a tenured professor accused of having ties to terrorist organizations.

The university's board of trustees, which voted 12-1 last December to recommend the dismissal of Professor Sami Al-Arian, allege he has links to terrorist organizations and poses a threat to students and colleagues.

"In order for us to maintain a climate for academic freedom, we must be able to assure our students, our faculty, our staff and our visitors that USF is a safe place for the pursuit of ideas and free expression," USF president Judy Genshaft said in defence of the board's decision. "Academic freedom exists to promote professors' and students' search for knowledge and understanding, not to be a shield for illegal or improper activities."

Al-Arian was investigated by U.S. federal prosecutors last year, but no charges were filed.

Genshaft's decision to sue Al-Arian in state court as a means of obtaining a ruling on the constitutionality of whether firing Al-Arian would violate his constitutional rights came as a surprise to most faculty members.

"We are baffled by president Genshaft's continuing efforts to evade normal academic due process, especially in this politically sensitive case, " said Mary Burgan, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. Pointing out that the university has legal resources that far outstrip the capacities of an individual faculty member, Burgan noted that "'Pre-suing' faculty members as part of an effort to dismiss them is an extremely rare tactic, with ominous and chilling portents for academic freedom."

In February 2002, AAUP appointed an investigating committee to study the issues posed by Al-Arian's threatened dismissal. In its interim report, the committee indicated its belief that: "... Professor Al-Arian's statements fell well within the ambit of academic freedom, ... (and that other) pending charges against Professor Al-Arian (were) too insubstantial to warrant serious consideration as adequate cause for dismissal."

The charges against Al-Arian begin with a speech he gave in Arabic more than a decade ago in which he said: "Jihad is our path. Victory for Islam. Death to Israel. Revolution. Revolution until victory. Rolling to Jerusalem." A videotape of the decade-old speech was replayed on television following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Al-Arian maintains his comments need to be considered in the context of the uprising of Palestinians at that time and that he meant death to the Israeli occupation, not death to Jews. He points out that no one in the USF administration has accused him of ever making such statements in classes or on campus. And after Sept.11, he spoke to a number of local Christian and Jewish groups in his role as imam of his mosque and condemned the terrorist attacks and all acts of violence.

Nevertheless, Al-Arian came under intense criticism following the broadcast of his speech. The university received a flood of calls and e-mails calling for his dismissal, and national granting organizations questioned Al-Arian's presence at the university.

In its court filings against Al-Arian, the university includes as reasons for his termination the "support of the entry of terrorists into the United States," "fundraising for a terrorist organization," and activities "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless actions." The university submitted no supporting evidence of terrorist activities.

Despite this lack of evidence, at a news conference last month, board chairman Richard Beard reiterated the university's view that Al-Arian has been involved with terrorists for many years. "It's time we take action and effectively cut this cancer out," he said.

After a two-year investigation by a federal grand jury in the mid-1990s of Al-Arian's ties to two organizations: the World Islamic Studies Enterprise, a group founded to build links between Western and Muslim academics; and the Islamic Committee for Palestine, which Al-Arian says was established to promote the Palestinian cause in the U.S., no charges were ever filed. In a separate inquiry, counsel for the university found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Al-Arian, who has taught computer science at USF for 16 years, insists the real issue at stake is one of academic freedom.

"This is a case of the ability of a professor to speak his mind without being threatened because of his political views," Al-Arian told the Associated Press.

"I've been active in defending academic freedom for 28 years, and I've never heard of a university suing a professor for something like this," Roy Weatherford, president of the South Florida chapter of United Faculty of Florida, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

If his dismissal is authorized by the courts, Al-Arian would be the first academic to be fired since Sept. 11 because of something he said, let alone something said more than a decade ago.