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Academic Freedom Act threatens academic freedom?

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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.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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