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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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February 16, 2014

Academic Freedom Act threatens academic freedom?

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Congressman Roskam, the Chief Deputy Whip and co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, and Democratic Rep. from Illinois Dan Lipinski   have recently introduced the so called "Protect Academic Freedom Act" that would deny federal funding to colleges and universities that participate in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars.

According to the legislation's sponsors, the bill was drafted in response to the American Studies Association's recent  resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  The prestigious 5,000-member-ASA resolution bans "formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions."

The Act says: "The Secretary shall consider an institution of higher education to be participating in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars if the institution, any significant part of the institution , or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement , or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel." 

Not surprisingly, the Protect Academic Freedom Act was backed by the former Ambassador to US, Michael Oren, who described the bill as the first legislation that defends Israel against discriminatory boycotts. "As a citizen of Israel and its former ambassador to the United States, as well as an historian and visiting professor on leading American campuses, I strongly support this courageous initiative. It can be the turning point in the struggle against the de-legitimization of the Jewish State."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations-USA (CAIR-USA) sent members of the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee a letter urging them to oppose legislation.

The CCR, NLG and CAIR-USA letter urges lawmakers to recognize that denying federal aid based on such protected speech violates the First Amendment and threatens academic freedom. It stresses that boycotts to bring about political, social and economic change are protected speech under the First Amendment, and warns that legislation to deny public funding in response to the assertion of unpopular views would likely face Constitutional challenges.  The letter also notes that the United States is itself a product of a colonial boycott against British, Irish, and West Indian goods.

The Maryland bills

Interestingly, two bills were recently introduced in Annapolis that are designed to limit First Amendment rights in Maryland universities and college campuses by targeting student groups that participate in the campaign for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS). 

These identical bills - SB647 and HB998 - introduced respectively in the Senate and House by Senator Conway and Delegate Kramer - restrict activities of campus student groups which engage in peaceful boycotts against universities and colleges of other countries. They prohibit peaceful dissent by withholding state funding to Maryland's institutions of higher learning. 

The Baltimore Sun, in a commentary said the Maryland bills do threaten academic freedom and aim to squelch the free exchange of ideas. "The bills would forbid public institutions of higher learning from providing financial support for individual scholars who want to join the ASA or attend one of its conferences."

The Baltimore Sun writer Melani McAlister went to say: Let's be clear about what the bills would mean in practical terms. National scholarly conferences are crucial for academics; it is where they present and discuss their ideas. But under these bills, a professor or graduate student would face economic and intellectual pressure".. Opposition to this kind of legislation has been voiced by the American Association of University Professors, the Middle East Studies Association, and many others, including the New York Times, which opposed the New York bill. It is vital that our universities and colleges remain a space of free and open discussion, where dissenting voices can be heard and ideas are freely exchanged. A healthy democracy requires that we support debate, especially when the issues are so charged."

Local, state, and national organizations are mobilizing to respond to this unconstitutional legislation. In Maryland, organizations defending academic freedom and the Constitution include ACLU-MD, Jewish Voice for Peace, Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, Jews Say No, Defending Dissent, Jewish Voice for Peace - DC, Center for Constitutional Rights, American Association of University Professors, UMD Students for Justice in Palestine, and many more. 

The New York state Bill

In a statement, the New York Civil Liberties Union said that New York's state legislature was poised to pass legislation that would prohibit any college or university from using state monies to fund academic groups that support or promote a boycott against institutions of higher education or their host countries. The prohibition would apply to any such institution chartered by New York's Board of Regents of the state university.

The legislation presents complex issues of law, policy and politics --issues that require rigorous analysis, debate and deliberation, the NYACLU said adding: "The Supreme Court has held that the advocacy of boycotts is a form of ideological expression protected by the First Amendment."  

The NYACLU pointed out that the proposed legislation implicates core principles of First Amendment doctrine as regards academic freedom, as well as complex issues of foreign policy - not to mention important questions about the role of the state legislature in addressing such issues.

The 48,000-member American Association of University Professors which opposes the boycott has also opposed the New York Assembly's bill.

While opposing the Bill, the AAUP pointed out that the bill - now on hold - would prohibit colleges and universities from using state aid to fund academic groups or associations that have passed resolutions or taken official actions to promote boycotts against higher education institutions in countries where the New York Board of Regents charters institutions, including Israel, Lebanon, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The proposed legislation would also prohibit a college or university from using state funding to pay membership dues to those associations or to reimburse travel or lodging for an employee attending any meeting of such an association.

The AAUP as an organization, however, opposes all such boycotts, including the one endorsed by the ASA, because they are inimical to principles of academic freedom. However, Assembly Bill A.8392, if enacted, could impose greater restrictions on the academic freedom of faculty members in New York than are threatened by the ASA boycott resolution"..The bill would also penalize faculty members whose participation in the ASA or any similar organization is unrelated to the organization's stance on a boycott--even those faculty members seeking to reverse the organization's support for a boycott.

The AAUP is concerned that the decision by the ASA to endorse an academic boycott of Israel is producing a backlash that is potentially as dangerous, or more so, than the boycott itself. Another example is the response of the Jewish organization Hillels of Georgia, which, by its own account, "compiled a list of all the Georgian professors or graduate students that voted in favor of the boycott, listed where they work, and encouraged our student body to choose wisely when they register for classes." This measure, the organization states, "sends a clear message to university staff that they do not live in an ivory tower, and that their actions can and will have consequences on their immediate lives." In fact, this compilation is tantamount to a political blacklist, reminiscent of the McCarthy era.

Israel is alarmed

Alarmed by the increasing momentum of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, at least two senior Israeli cabinet ministers, as well as the Prime Minister, have issued statements on the boycotts in recent days. Finance Minister Yair Lapid told Army Radio on Feb 3 that the boycott could cost the economy 11 billion Israeli shekels and nearly 10,000 jobs. He noted Germany was talking about banning settlement products and warned ''it will hit the pocket of every Israeli if we don't deal with it.''

Israel is also alarmed at the new European Union guidelines that explicitly state no EU grants, prizes or financial instruments, such as loans, can be issued to Israeli entities operating beyond the Green Line (that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories), including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The British government's warning to businesses in December last over trading with Israeli settlements in the West Bank has also raised concern.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, in the past fortnight alone, the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, has been barred from investing in two Israeli companies due to their ''serious violations'' of individual rights, while Denmark's largest bank added an Israeli bank to its list of banned companies. Soon after, Danskse Bank, which had already withdrawn its investment from Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus, announced it was banning investment in Bank Hapoalim because the latter is funding settlement construction.

Inspired by the boycott campaign against apartheid in South Africa that was designed to pressure the government to overturn racial segregation, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was formed in 2005 by Palestinians.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.