California Scholars for Academic Freedom Lay Out Recent History of Assaults on Universities Regarding Academic Freedom, the Right of Free Speech and Dissent


October 5, 2016: CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (CS4AF)**, a group of over 200 scholars at twenty California institutions of higher learning, urge a renewed and strong support by university administrators for academic freedom and the right to free speech and dissent in light of an alarming recent history of assaults on academic freedom.

On September 13, well after the school year had begun, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Dean Carla Hesse cancelled a course entitled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” that had been vetted and approved by all the appropriate committees and authorities. It was soon revealed that 43 Zionist organizations (some of these may be organizations in name only) had sent letters of protest asking for its suppression. Faculty and student protest forced the administration to reinstate the course.  But adding insult to injury, UC Berkeley administrators have refused to apologize publicly, and have continued to conceal the obvious reasons for their caving in to outside pressures behind a veil of administrative lingo and half-truths.

The UC Berkeley case is but the latest assault on academic freedom that has increased in intensity over the last fifteen years, overwhelmingly in the interest of one foreign government, namely Israel.

Well-funded interest groups outside of the university, including AMCHA, Campus Watch, Louis D. Brandeis Center, Anti-Defamation League, Zionist Organization of America, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the Canary Mission Website, the Middle East Forum, and the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership have kept up a continuous effort to silence open debate about a controversial issue: the Israeli occupation and Palestinian rights. It is worth noting that two of the main proponents of these organizations, David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes, were named as leading Islamophobes by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Increasingly, such groups are intervening in campus matters across the nation, and they do so with the intent of chilling freedom of expression. It is clearly their intent not only to intimidate but also by example to threaten others and deter them from their rights to academic freedom and free speech. These groups have a well-organized campaign to end any critical discourse on Israel. One of them, the Canary Mission website has made its main mission to intimidate and blacklist students and faculty who speak out in support of Palestinian rights.  The Canary Mission website tries to prevent college students who have been active in seeking Palestinian rights from attaining employment upon graduation, conflating their activism with anti-Semitism. They list the names of these students, their employment history, and other personal information, contacting prospective employers and graduate schools, claiming without evidence that the students are anti-Semites and terrorists.

The claims of these various groups are made in the name of protecting the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students, usually by intemperate and exaggerated characterizations of the statements or scholarly work of those they target. In particular, the charge of anti-Semitism is routinely and opportunistically invoked, often on the basis of the spurious and unfortunate equation made by the State Department between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Quite aside from the criticism that this definition has gathered from the scholarly community, the fact that a governmental definition that is the fruit of lobbying and political considerations is de facto assumed as valid for academic discussions is in itself a limitation of academic freedom, which is specifically designed to be independent of political constraints, and, more generally, push the boundaries of politically-mandated definitions and notions. In none of the cases listed below, was there any evidence whatsoever that the scholarly criticisms of Israel have in fact been anti-Semitic. The charge is meant to harass and silence criticism and open debate. In addition, nearly all of the harassment is one-sided: against those who are critical of Israel. All such charges of anti-Semitism against university campuses have been dismissed. Still, this charge continues to be invoked to silence debate on a controversial issue, a core of academic freedom.

These attacks have included the threat to punish a university if it fails to deny tenure to a targeted faculty member; efforts to sanction or suppress the activities and even existence of organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine or the Muslim Students Association; attempts to “eliminate” classes deemed to be biased against Israel and to prevent speakers from appearing on campus; and threats to individual students and professors. The organization Palestine Legal as well as Jewish Voice for Peace have both documented the increasing harassment.

At UC Berkeley and on campuses all over the country, currently no issue compares to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the passions and animus that disagreements evoke. But even more importantly, nothing presently compares to the problematic way that some university and college administrators have chosen to deal with this particular conflict, including advocating a censorious approach. Too often, university administrators concerned about donors have caved in to these outside pressures rather than make a robust defense of academic freedom.

Academic freedom means the freedom of faculty to conduct and disseminate scholarly research; the freedom to design courses and teach students in their areas of their expertise; and the right to free speech for students and faculty enshrined in the First Amendment.

Academic freedom includes the freedom of faculty and students to reach conclusions that contradict existing dogma, whether within the academy or throughout the larger society. This includes raising concerns and proposing actions regarding violations of international legal norms by a government considered to be a strategic ally of the United States.

Academic freedom includes most importantly the freedom for scholarly debate about controversial issues.  Academic freedom ensures that scholarship and inquiry into controversial matters is not over-ridden by political interests. It means the freedom of professors and students from administrative or political interference with research, teaching, and governance, and the constitutional academic freedom that insulates the university in core academic affairs from interference by the state.

We review here only some of the most prominent examples over the last 15 years of these unconstitutional efforts to suppress academic freedom and freedom of speech:

In 2003, tenured chemistry professor Sami Amin al-Arian was fired by the University of South Florida after conservative talk show host Bill O”Reilly made inflammatory accusations against him as a supporter of terrorism, for his support of Palestinian rights. The faculty at USF vigorously and overwhelmingly opposed this administrative firing as an assault on academic freedom.  The U.S. government subsequently got involved. Professor al-Arian was forced into a plea agreement in the wake of post-9/11 legal accusations that never held up in court. He was eventually deported, although he was a U.S. citizen.

In 2004, the Boston-based David Project Center for Jewish Leadership produced a film “Columbia Unbecoming” accusing professors in Columbia University”s Middle East and Asian Languages and Civilizations of intimidation of Jewish students. The film did not interview the professors.  Columbia University formed a committee that investigated the charges and found no credible evidence of harassment or intimidation that warranted disciplinary action.

In 2007, a widespread campaign was undertaken by some Barnard College alumni and spread through many pro-Israel websites to deny tenure to Barnard Professor Nadia Abu el-Haj for her book Facts on the Ground about Israeli archaeology, which argued that Israeli archaeology shaped the archaeological facts to support the state of Israel, including suppression of facts that did not support their case. She was eventually granted tenure.

In 2007, Norman Finkelstein, a prominent political scientist whose primary fields of research are the Israel/Palestine conflict and the politics of the Holocaust, was denied tenure by the DePaul University administration after public attacks by pro-Israel lobbyists and scholars such as Alan Dershowitz, despite the fact that the faculty on the relevant promotion committees overwhelmingly voted to award him tenure. The university administration was forced into a monetary settlement with Professor Finkelstein.

In 2008, Thomas Abowd, was dismissed from a tenure-track position in anthropology at Wayne State University. He had recently received the university’s President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and a merit raise. Undergraduates who had never taken a class with him, plus Zionists in the local community, complained to the administration about a speech he made at a political protest on campus. They accused him of being “anti-Semitic” and an “anti-white racist.” There was a suit, the university eventually admitted that these accusations were fraudulent, and Abowd agreed to resign with a settlement.

In 2008 and 2009, Professor Lisa Rofel at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was twice brought up on charges by two right-wing pro-Israel faculty, including Tammi Rossman-Benjamin who heads AMCHA, for events she organized that were critical of Israel.  All the participants in these events were Jewish, including a representative of the group Breaking the Silence, who are Israeli soldiers against the occupation.  With no sense of irony, Rossman-Benjamin and her husband claimed that Rofel had broken the rules of academic freedom by bringing political speech onto campus.  When those charges were dismissed, AMCHA, using the tactic of lawfare, brought a lawsuit under the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) charging UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley and UC Irvine with creating campus climates that were anti-Semitic.  The lawsuit was eventually quietly dropped, but not before these campuses had to use taxpayers” money to prove the charges were illegitimate.

In 2009, Professor William Robinson, at UC, Santa Barbara, was attacked by pro-Israel groups, led by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a campaign against him that lasted nearly six months and that included among those who attacked him some of his faculty colleagues. The charge: Professor Robinson had included optional reading materials drawn from the international press for classroom discussion that evening on the Israel-Palestine conflict. These outside interest groups made threats against the university if they did not fire Professor Robinson. The harassment also involved slander, defamation of character, hate mail and death threats. The disciplinary procedure initiated against him by his university”s administrators involved a host of irregularities, including violations of the university’s own procedures, breaches of confidentiality, denial of due process, conflicts of interest, failure of disclosure, and improper political surveillance.  A campaign of support initiated by students and some faculty eventually forced the university administration to back down.

In 2010, the student group Muslim Identities and Cultures (MIC) on the UC Berkeley campus was attacked by AMCHA, in an attempt to stop an event entitled “What Can American Academia Do to Realize Justice for the Palestinians” that featured several faculty speakers, including a featured speaker from Birzeit University. MIC was simply co-sponsoring with 5 other groups.  However, AMCHA singled out that group to slander as well as the group”s faculty advisor Professor Paola Bacchetta. Then Chancellor Birgeneau wrote a statement deciding in favor of the students” and faculty academic freedom.

In 2011, AMCHA launched a multi-year campaign of intimidation and harrassment of David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University Northridge, for his co-authored petition to the CSU Chancellor not to reopen the Israel Study Abroad program because of its discriminatory treatment of students, his webpage in support of BDS and Palestinian human rights, and his hosting of Ilan Pappe”s visit. AMCHA and 23 other Zionist organizations petitioned the California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, to prosecute Klein for misuse of university resources.  When she declined on the basis that no violations of law had occurred, Zionist organizations sent a letter to Los Angeles City Attorney Trutanich accusing Harris of abdicating her responsibilities and urging him, without success, to prosecute Klein.  He became the target of hate mail, threatening phone calls, and character assassination for several years.

In 2012, The AMCHA Initiative waged a campaign to prevent Ilan Pappé from speaking on three CSU campuses.  Ilan Pappé, an Israeli scholar, is Professor of History and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies, and Co-Director for the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies at Exeter University.  That effort at censorship failed due in part to the principled defense of academic freedom by three CSU campus presidents.

In 2013, Stand With Us tried to suppress the introduction into a class at San Diego State University a map of the area of Palestine that controverts the Israeli government”s map of the area but that reflects the understanding of the region by others who live there.  The Provost caved in to these outside pressures and, because the instructor did not have security of employment, enjoined the instructor not to present this material again.

In March 2014, the Louis D. Brandeis Center made false accusations against the University of California, Santa Barbara campus for supposedly fostering a hostile environment for Jewish students.  In that case, the Center brought a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Title VI complaint that was later quietly dropped.

In that same month, the AMCHA Initiative along with several other organizations sent highly inflammatory accusations against San Francisco State University faculty members and students, singling out Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, for an event held on the campus that was a report of an academic and labor delegation to Palestine.  The AMCHA letter accused the SFSU faculty members of meeting with Palestinians, whom the letter labels as “terrorists.” It demands that the university provide “counter-programming” to what they called an anti-Semitic event.  Professor Abdulhadi has been the repeated target of smear attacks by these organizations, most recently because of her leading role in the SFSU collaboration with An-Najah National University in Palestine.

In August 2014, Chancellor Wise of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, overrode shared faculty governance when she unilaterally withdrew the offer to Professor Steven Salaita who had just been hired in the program of American Indian Studies, for his personal tweets as a private citizen exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. about the latest Israeli assault on Palestinians in Gaza that summer, that killed nearly 1900 people, most of them civilians, and damaged nearly 167 schools and six universities, and raided five universities in the West Bank.  Chancellor Wise”s action was condemned by the American Association of University Professors, as well as other professional associations and thousands of academics. Professor Salaita sued the university and, in a virtual admission of wrongdoing, the university granted monetary compensation to Professor Salaita. A FOI request subsequently found the Chancellor had been in close communication with university donors opposed to Professor Salaita.

In January 2015, the University of Pennsylvania bowed to external pressure to disinvite a guest speaker, well-known journalist Chris Hedges, because of his expressed views critical of the Israeli government.

In spring 2015, the AMCHA Initiative, Accuracy in Academia, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Stand With Us sent false accusations against a student-led course on Palestine at the University of California, Riverside.  The course had been fully vetted and was sponsored by Professor David Lloyd.  The student involved in leading the course, as well as Professor Lloyd, were subjected to hostile and racist email.  The student was accused of wishing the annihilation of Jews.  In this case, the course was not cancelled, although the Chancellor did not make a public defense of academic freedom.

In spring 2015, UC Santa Cruz Students for Justice in Palestine (a frequent target of these outside interest groups), held mock checkpoints on campus to illustrate their concern about the Israeli occupation. Several students, encouraged by AMCHA, lodged a false accusation of hate/bias against the group for allegedly targeting certain students (presumably Jewish) and physically blocking them from entering specific doorways unless they produced identification. The administration later apologized to SJP for publicizing what were unfounded accusations before meeting with them to investigate. They offered to send out a campus-wide apology but never did.

In 2014-2015, right-wing pro-Israel groups heavily lobbied the University of California to revise the university”s intolerance policy to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.  After much critical commentary opposed to such an infringement on academic freedom and open debate, the University of California issued an Intolerance policy that states in its preamble(rather than in the body of the text): “Anti-Semitism, anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

In February 2016, two Brooklyn College students were falsely accused by the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America of making anti-Semitic remarks at a faculty council meeting that students interrupted to demand a return to free and open admissions, more full-time faculty members of color, and an end to the presence of undercover cops on campus. None of their demands were related to the Israel-Palestine conflict but two of the students were involved with Students for Justice in Palestine.  After inflammatory press coverage in New York that repeated the false accusations, the Brooklyn College administration, after first pressuring the students to accept a settlement, eventually admitted that the students never made any anti-Semitic statements.

In March 2016, Sarah Schulman, faculty at City University of New York (CUNY), was called before a CUNY Task Force on Anti-Semitism, in her role as faculty adviser to Students for Justice in Palestine.  The Task Force had a 14-page list of accusations filed by the Zionist Organization of America, which turned out to be vague and slanderous charges against Muslim students who were said to make Jewish students feel uncomfortable by their mere presence on campus.  In addition, the ZOA had been harassing Professor Schulman, sending tweets to her publishers, reviewers, friends and colleagues and sabotaging her Wikipedia page.

As we send this press release, Professor Simona Sharoni, Professor of Gender and Women”s Studies at SUNY Plattsburg, is under personal and professional attack for her support for both victims of sexual assault and for the human rights of the Palestinian people.  More specifically she is under attack for her publicly stated support for the constitutionally protected Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Stand With Us has now made 10 FOIL requests to the University about Professor Sharoni.  She has also been subject to threatening e-mails and twitter posts.

Palestine Legal, an organization that protects the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out in support of Palestinian rights, responded to 152 incidents of censorship, punishment or other burdening of advocacy in 2014.  In the first six months of 2015, they responded to 140 incidents.

These right-wing pro-Israel groups have also tried to suppress academic freedom by repeatedly introducing un-constitutional bills into state legislatures that try to outlaw any criticism of Israel by erroneously equating that criticism with anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism–like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression–is a real problem that universities should indeed take seriously. However, the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism has become a standard tactic by those groups who seek to censor criticism of Israel. That tactic also ignores the many Jews who are critical of Israel”s flaunting of UN resolutions and international humanitarian law.

While both federal and state law as well as university policy protect students from discrimination or antagonism based on their religious, ethnic, gender and other identities, no law could possibly protect students or faculty from hearing challenges to their political, religious or cultural beliefs simply on the grounds of their identification with them, so long as such discourse is conducted in a non-coercive and nonviolent manner.

Any organization, internal or external, that seeks to limit the free and full deliberation of any viewpoint, or the representation of perspectives inimical to it, trespasses on a principle of academic life so fundamental that the university would be unimaginable without it.  It is a principle which cannot and must not promise that in all situations students or faculty will feel intellectual comfort: indeed, mental and moral discomfort are often essential conditions for serious learning and thoughtful consideration of views that challenge our preconceptions.  This is not, however, the same thing as slanderous and intimidating attacks, intended to silence rather than to promote debate and inquiry.

It is a university”s responsibility to tolerate a wide range of views on issues, even if they are unpopular or minority opinions.  While in the most recent attack on academic freedom at UC Berkeley, the dean claimed that the university should not tolerate “political agendas,” surely the administrative suppression of the course also constituted political advocacy, of a negative kind.

Academic freedom guarantees neither that any belief of any kind will be held sacrosanct and above criticism, nor that in all and every situation every view will be given equal consideration.  The university is the whole colloquy of the views expressed in it and the preservation of a broad and complete spectrum of views, all of them allowed both space and time for their elaboration, is essential to it.

The California Scholars for Academic Freedom draws attention to this very troublesome recent history to urge a renewed support by university administrators for academic freedom. We urge college presidents and deans to re-affirm their commitment to academic freedom, the hallmark of a university education.

**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.



Lisa Rofel


University of California, Santa Cruz


Sondra Hale

Research Professor

University of California, Los Angeles


Claudio Fogu


University of California, Santa Barbara


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