A Florida district court judge has refused to rule on whether the University of South Florida’s plan to fire a controversial tenured professor would violate his constitutional right to free speech.
USF officials allege that Sami Al-Arian has helped raise funds for terrorist organizations, has assisted terrorists in gaining entry to the United States, and has founded organizations that support terrorism. Al-Arian, a Palestinian refugee who arrived in the U.S. in 1975, has denied the allegations of terrorist links and says the university is trying to fire him for his political views.
Despite both a federal grand jury and an FBI investigation that led to no filing of any charges against him, USF pressed ahead with plans to fire the computer science professor who has been on paid leave since January 2002.
Last fall, university officials petitioned the court for a declaratory judgement on whether terminating Al-Arian would violate his rights.
In her ruling Dec. 16, Judge Susan Bucklew of Tampa ruled the university’s motion was premature and bypassed the collective agreement with faculty that requires the parties to enter into arbitration. The university’s motion could not be granted because it was asking the courts to “fast-forward past the final step of the dispute-resolution process,” Judge Bucklew said.
Al-Arian said he was pleased with the judgement, but acknowledged the case is far from over. “The judge agreed that I should not be deprived of my rights and choices which is what USF was trying to do to me,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “I’m proud of the legal system today.”
His attorney, Robert McKee, told the Associated Press he was not surprised by the judgement and is awaiting the university’s next move.
“The ball’s in their court,” he said. “If USF is, as they represented to the court, uncertain whether firing Dr. Al-Arian violates his constitutional rights, then we suggest they shouldn’t fire him.”
McKee said the university could appeal the decision, further delaying the case, or it could fire Al-Arian anyway and turn the matter over to arbitration. It could also delay a decision, pending the outcome of further investigation into Al-Arian’s alleged terrorist links.
USF spokesman Michael Reich would not say whether the university planned to appeal the decision or proceed with terminating Al-Arian’s employment.
“We do not believe that terminating him would violate his rights, but this was an effort to make absolutely sure,” Reich said in a statement.
Roy Weatherford, president of the South Florida chapter of the United Faculty of Florida which is defending Al-Arian, criticized the USF administration for pursuing the court action, saying it has accomplished very little.
“We’re back where we started a couple hundred thousand dollars ago,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
USF president Judy Genshaft suspended Al-Arian last year when controversy arose after he appeared on Fox News Channel’s, The O’Reilly Factor, which aired controversial statements he made more than a decade ago about the first Palestinian Intifada.
Genshaft then announced she was planning to fire the outspoken professor, at first claiming the university could not guarantee his safety on campus and later alleging he had ties to terrorist organizations.
Al-Arian threatened to sue if he was fired, and the American Association of University Professors warned the university would face censure for violating free speech and academic freedom if he was terminated.
In an extraordinary move, USF lawyers then filed a lawsuit asking the courts to determine whether firing Al-Arian for alleged links to terrorism would violate his First Amendment rights.
The AAUP is currently awaiting the results of an investigating committee’s report on the case. A decision on imposing censure on USF will be made following publication of the report.