Columbia University to NYS Legislature: Back Off!

3 Feb

About 75 Nearly 100 members of the Columbia University faculty have issued a forceful response to the New York State Legislature bill that would make it illegal for universities and colleges to use public money to fund faculty involvement in organizations like the ASA.

Signatories include such noted scholars as Lila Abu-Lughod, Eric Foner, Akeel Bilgrami, Jean Cohen, Victoria de Grazia, Alice Kessler-Harris, Mae Ngai, Todd Gitlin, Judith Butler, and Patricia Williams. Signatories also include prominent opponents of the ASA boycott, who nevertheless understand the threat this bill poses.

Here are some excerpts from their letter:

These bills aim to punish political speech and association of academics generally, and specifically target the viewpoint expressed by that speech and association. Both of these aims violate well-settled law protecting First Amendment rights.

These proposed laws have been cynically misdescribed as protecting academic freedom, when in fact they do just the opposite – if the Anti-Boycott bills become law they will threaten constitutionally protected academic speech and debate by punishing political speech and action by academics on matters of public concern.

A key component of academic life is membership in professional organizations, such as the ASA. Indeed it is the exceptional faculty member who is not a member of one or more professional organization. Membership in professional academic organizations, attendance at annual meetings, and participation in committee work provide important opportunities for professional development, intellectual exchange, and the evolution of knowledge in the field. Columbia University, in keeping with our peers, supports faculty research and professional development by reimbursing faculty for the costs of membership in relevant professional organizations, and covers the reasonable costs of travel to official meetings of those organizations.

Frequently the governing bodies and/or the membership of professional academic organizations take positions on matters of public concern, such as climate change, the military dictatorship in Honduras, apartheid in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to deny a visa to Professors Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan to visit the U.S., the detention of scholars in Iran, President George W. Bush’s administration’s treatment of foreign prisoners – calling such treatment torture – and the Pentagon’s previous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Finally, the proposed anti-boycott bills specifically target a particular form of First Amendment expression, the boycott. About this the Supreme Court has also been clear: boycotts “to bring about political, social and economic change” are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment. This form of political action has been used in countless contexts through time and across circumstance, but it has a particularly important history in the United States as a tactic to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, including the famous Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1982 Supreme Court case N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co. recounts the civil rights movement’s use of boycotts to challenge racial segregation in Mississippi and cements this political tactic as one clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Some of the signatories to this letter endorse the principles underlying the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, others do not. Regardless of whether one supports the cause to which this particular boycott is responding, we all firmly believe that academics have a right to express their political views through a wide range of protected speech, including boycotts. A law targeting the boycott of academic institutions in countries such as Israel, Hungary, Lebanon, and the Czech Republic cannot be differentiated from the laws that punished boycotts in the U.S. civil rights movement or those that compelled academics to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. Simply because a cause or political viewpoint may be unpopular with elected officials does not, and cannot, justify a law censoring speech by academics in connection with that cause or viewpoint. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has clearly stated that the purpose of these bills is to cut state aid to academic institutions that fund membership in professional organizations such as the ASA. These bills thus embody exactly the kind of retaliatory action undertaken by public officials who dislike the content or viewpoint of certain speech activities that courts have consistently found unconstitutional.

One Response to “Columbia University to NYS Legislature: Back Off!”

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  1. Anti-boycott Israel bill halted in New York Assembly - February 4, 2014

    […] seventy-five members of the Columbia University faculty also joined the pile-on against the […]

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