Tag Archives: Center for Constitutional Rights

Why You Should Worry More About NYS Legislation than the ASA Boycott of Israel

1 Feb

The New York State Legislature is readying to pass a bill that would make it illegal for any college or university in the state to use public monies to fund faculty membership in—or travel to—academic organizations that boycott the institutions of another country.

The clear target of this legislation, as the Speaker of the State Assembly has made clear, is the American Studies Association. The bill has already passed the NYS Senate; it is going to be voted on some time this week in the Assembly.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild state in this letter, the bill raises a host of constitutional red flags. Boycotts are time-honored expressive activities, protected as speech under the First Amendment. The clear and stated purposed of this legislation is to suppress speech on the basis of its content.

Beyond these constitutional issues, this bill would have a direct effect on many of my friends and colleagues at CUNY, who are members of the ASA or travel to the ASA for its conferences, and who often use what little resources CUNY provides for this kind of thing, to travel to the ASA.

This bill needs to be stopped: either in the State Assembly or at the desk of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo.  This website here contains valuable information about whom to contact in the New York State legislature. Please take the time to do so right now. There is apparently increasing trepidation about the bill among influential members of the Assembly; your phone call or email could make a difference.

If you would like to sign this letter of protest—which does not endorse the academic boycott but instead calls upon the Legislature and the Governor to uphold the First Amendment—please email Alana Krivo-Kaufman at alana@jewishvoiceforpeace.org by Monday morning, 9 am.

In organizing signatures for this letter and talking to people about this bill, I’ve been getting some push back from folks claiming that the bill is no different from the ASA boycott itself. As false as that claim is, I welcome it, as it provides an excellent opportunity to clarify what the ASA boycott is (and isn’t)—and to point out which side of this debate is the quickest to use coercion when it serves its purposes.

The ASA boycott is voluntary: Individual members of the ASA are free to oppose it; they are free to travel to Israeli conferences and to organize joint programs with Israeli institutions—all the while that they remain ASA members in good standing. In other words, there is no penalty for not complying with the boycott. It is, as I say, voluntary.

The ASA boycott is not about individuals. Indeed, the ASA has invited Israeli scholars to its next conference. It merely seeks to sever institutional relationships: Junior Year Abroad between a university in the States and a university in Israel, joint programs and projects between universities in the two countries. That kind of thing.

The ASA boycott is not a blacklist, at least not in any sense of the term that I’m familiar with.

Now let’s compare the ASA boycott to this New York State legislation.

The legislation is (by definition) not voluntary: It mandates that colleges and universities not use state monies for the purpose of funding faculty membership in or travel to boycotting organizations like the ASA.

It is coercive: Any college or university that does use state monies in a way that the law prohibits will have the entirety of its state funding cut for that year.

It is about individuals: It directly targets individual professors, seeking to stop them from joining the ASA or traveling to the ASA, and only targets institutions secondarily, if they do not comply with the law.

If you’re against the boycott or wavering about it because you worry about the injection into academia of measures that may be non-voluntary, that may be coercive, or that may target individuals, I won’t ask you to stop worrying about that, though I think you should.

Instead, I’ll suggest that as you continue worrying and thinking about that, you take a stand against legislation that actually does inject into academia a measure that is non-voluntary, that is coercive, and that does target individuals.

If we can mobilize against this bill even 1/10 of the agita that has been mobilized against the ASA boycott, we should be able to defeat it.

Israeli Ambassador: I Balance Myself

12 Feb

Just some odds and ends from the Brooklyn College BDS controversy.

1. I did a Bloggingheads show with Sarah Posner.  This is just a clip where I talk about my own confrontation with the Israel-Palestine question in college and how that helps me think about education more generally. But you can also watch the whole thing if you like.

2. I never posted the follow-up letter [pdf] that Gale Brewer, one of the members of the City Council who signed that Fidler letter and then jumped ship, sent to President Gould.

3.  The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild teamed up to write a letter [pdf] to all the members of City Council who signed the Fidler letter. It helpfully gets into the case law around this issue.

4. The NYCLU sent its own letter to Lewis Fidler [pdf]. In addition to claiming that Fidler’s letter “turns the First Amendment on its head,” it discusses some of the thornier issues surrounding the question of whether universities or academic departments can take political stands on the issues of the day:

There is a longstanding debate in academic circles regarding the question as to whether and when an academic institution should refrain from taking ideological positions and abstain from, using its corporate form, to speak out on the issues of the day. A committee at the University of Chicago, headed by Harry Kalven, Jr., issued a widely circulated report in 1967 urging that the University not engage in “political and social action.” The committee reasoned that the proper role of a university is to provide a neutral forum for the free exchange of ideas and that when it abandons its neutrality “it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” The merits of the Kalven report have been much debated at the University of Chicago and elsewhere over the years. The question re-surfaced when the Sullivan Principles were proposed in opposition South African apartheid and universities were urged to endorse those principles and many of them did. It was addressed and criticized at the University of Chicago only last year. The Chicago Maroon, March 2, 2012. Indeed, even if the Kalven position were to be adopted, it is unclear whether, as a matter of policy, such a position should be limited to the role of a college or the university or whether it should be extended to smaller units within the academic institution. Restated, if a university elects to refrain from “political and social action” should its academic departments adopt a similar position of restraint? Some might say yes. But, if individual scholars can take positions on the issues of the day, as surely they are entitled to do, why can these scholars not associate with other academics and speak out collectively or in the name of an academic department, recognizing that there may well be members of the department who dissent from the departmental viewpoint?

These are interesting questions that are best left to be resolved by the individual academic institutions and entities. For academic freedom is best protected by allowing academic institutions to engage in self-governance and by preventing the political branches of government from intruding into academic decision-making. One of the earliest lessons of academic freedom is that legislative bodies must refrain from using the power of the purse to dictate the content of the academic enterprise. Arthur Lovejoy, one of the principal architects of the concept of academic freedom in this country, observed that “the distinctive social function of the scholar’s trade cannot be fulfilled if those who pay the piper were permitted to call the tune.”

4. Stanley Fish has a post about the controversy at the Times.

5. Last night, Columbia Law School sponsored a talk by Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations. Since I didn’t hear a peep about this from Alan Dershowitz, the City Council, or any of the other critics of the Brooklyn College poli sci department, I can only assume the ambassador balanced himself.

A Sinking Ship? 2 politicians jump, there may be a 3rd.

5 Feb

More news on the Brooklyn/BDS controversy:

1.Yet another signatory to the Lewis Fidler letter, which threatened to punish CUNY by withholding funds, has rescinded his signature.

Today on Twitter, City Councilman Stephen Levin announced:

With Letitia James, two out of the 10 signatories have now removed themselves from the Fidler letter.

2.  I have it on a very good source that yet another member of the New York City Council who signed the letter is going to make a public statement tomorrow, distancing him/herself from its contents. Am not at liberty to say who. But that would make 3 out of 10.

3. My chair, Paisley Currah, has written a very powerful piece for The Chronicle Review, explaining his position on the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS event. In addition to revealing some details that folks don’t know or have ignored, he makes an important point about the value—and limits—of the idea of balance and debate as the only model of learning and discussion:

Debates have their place, but thoroughly understanding an argument requires sustained and concentrated attention. Focusing on one idea at a time does not entail the suppression of opposing ideas. It’s a very limited vision of education to imagine that it should take the form of a tennis match, with ideas truncated into easily digestible sound bites.

4. Katha Pollitt has a characteristically crisp evisceration of the balance=thought position:

Dear “progressive elected officials and leaders,” I have spoken on dozens of panels at assorted campuses round the land. Sometimes these were politically mixed events and sometimes all the speakers shared a common perspective. Sometimes it was even just me up there! What is wrong with that? Surely you don’t think the school should arrange for someone from the Eagle Forum to share the platform with me when I speak about feminism, or bring on a priest and a rabbi to put in a word for God when I speak about atheism? On every campus, dozens of panels and lectures take place every week, hosted by student groups, academic departments and programs, endowed lecture series and so on. If over the course of a year every side gets its turn, why isn’t that good enough?

5. The Center for Constitutional Rights has written a lengthy, substantive letter to President Gould on this issue; it’s got some excellent context and cases.

6. This is from a few days ago, but Scott Lemieux does a hilarious send-up of the “balance” argument.

The threats to Brooklyn College’s funding over their decision to invite a world-class scholar to discuss issues of major import, as I have noted, seem to involve some ad hoc principle about “balance” that is a “principle” in the same sense as the equal protection holding in Bush v. Gore.

But, at any rate, let’s pretend that this is a serious argument for a second. I have an example of this new principle being violated! Brooklyn College President Karen Gould:

“You have asked that I state unequivocally the college’s position on the BDS movement, and I have no hesitation in doing so. As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally.”

Personally, I find this statement unobjectionable. If one were to take the newly minted Sacred Principles of Academic Balance being used to attack academic freedom at CUNY, however, Gould should be robustly criticized for expressing a view on a controversial issue on behalf of the college. Is she now obligated to issue another press release from a supporter of BDS for the sake of balance? I find these new Sacred Principles very confusing.

6. Barbara Bowen, the president of my union, which represents 25,000 professors and staff at CUNY, issued a tough call to the “progressive” politicians who asked the president to have our department withdraw its co-sponsorship: “We call on you immediately to withdraw the demands of your letter and to communicate to the Brooklyn College community your support for President Gould’s position.”

7. Inside Higher Ed has a thorough report on the controversy.

8. Andrew Sullivan had a nice link to this blog, which he quoted at length. The title of his post: “The Self-Appointed Policemen of the Israel Debate, Ctd”.

9. There are multiple petitions to sign. Make sure to sign this one, which began circulating two days ago and already has over 2000 signatures, and this one, just out from the Nation.

10. Make sure to check out this post about the massive hypocrisy of Christine Quinn.

11. It’s now been four days since my department posted our call for requests to co-sponsor other panels, representing any and all points of view. Despite the claim that we’re shutting our doors to views we don’t like, we still haven’t gotten a single request for co-sponsorship. I’m beginning to wonder whether our critics really care about balance or presenting opposing views after all.

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