MESA Board Statement on University of South Florida’s Decision to Fire Professor Sami Al-Arian

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America is deeply disturbed by the University of South Florida’s decision to fire Professor Sami Al-Arian. The decision was made after Professor Al-Arian appeared on FOX News’ “O’Reilly Factor” on September 26, 2001. The interviewer, Bill O’Reilly, revived old and never-proven accusations that Professor Al-Arian had ties to terrorist organizations. As a result, Professor Al-Arian and the University of South Florida began to receive threatening letters, and “in light of … very real concerns for safety,” the university put Professor Al-Arian on leave (President Judy Genshaft, Report to Trustees, Sept 28, 2001, www.usf.edu). Three months later the Board of Trustees voted to dismiss him.

The reasons given by university officials for the dismissal are 1) Al-Arian violated his contract by returning to campus once after being put on leave; and 2) he did not make clear in off campus speeches that his views were his own, not those of the University of South Florida. University officials maintain that the case “is not about academic freedom” (St. Petersburg Times, 20 December 2001, www.sptimes.com). The basic requirements of due process have not been observed here. In comments about Al-Arian’s dismissal, an attorney hired by the university noted that donations to the university had suffered as a result of the O’Reilly Factor coverage. And in a letter to the New York Times (Sunday, 3 February 2002) President Genshaft singled out a statement made in an off campus speech by Professor Al-Arian in 1988 to explain her actions thirteen years later. Thus it seems that behind the ostensible grounds for dismissal cited by the university, lies the desire not to offend supporters of the university at the expense of firing a professor whose opinions are repugnant to them.

The Al-Arian case IS about academic freedom. It is also about the basic first amendment right to freedom of speech. The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America calls on the administration of the University of South Florida to reinstate Professor Sami Al-Arian. In the words of the “Statement on Academic Freedom in the Wake of September 11, 2001” endorsed by the American Association of University Professors: “It is incumbent upon universities and their leaders to protect the freedom to assemble and debate, explore questions and test ideas. That can be difficult in a time of stress and pain, but it is never more important.” (www.aaup.org)

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