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Albany Alert: Academic Freedom at Risk in First Amendment Fight

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A New York Assembly bill widely seen as an unconstitutional threat to academic freedom was withdrawn from the agenda of the Assembly Higher Education Committee on February 3, after legislators received a torrent of calls from PSC members and others. The bill was introduced in a revised form a few days later, and academic and civil liberties organizations have vowed to continue their fight against it.

First introduced in January, the legislation A.8392 aimed to cut off all State funding to any New York college or university that pays the expenses for participation in any “academic institutions that are boycotting a country or higher education institutions of a country,” the bill’s sponsors said. A similar measure was rushed through the New York State Senate without public discussion; backers of both bills said they were proposed in response to the American Studies Association’s December endorsement of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions over what the ASA termed violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In an editorial titled, “A Chill on Speech,” The New York Times called A.8392 “an ill-considered response to the ASA resolution” that would “trample on academic freedoms,” and urged that it be rejected. “Academics are rightly concerned that it would impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel,” said the Times.

Broad Opposition

Other opponents of the legislation included the PSC, the CUNY administration, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), NY State United Teachers (NYSUT), Center for Constitutional Rights, New York Civil Liberties Union, SUNY’s United University Professions, CUNY’s University Faculty Senate executive committee, and various Jewish and Palestinian organizations.

“The enactment of this legislation would serve to regulate speech based on content and the message it conveys,” warned NYSUT, the PSC’s state affiliate. For that reason, A.8392 “violates the principles of academic freedom, the First Amendment protection of speech and protection of association,” NYSUT said.

“Academic freedom is meaningless if it does not protect those who hold unpopular positions, including those who advocate academic boycotts,” argued a resolution approved by PSC delegates on January 30. The statement noted that PSC members have a range of deeply held views on the Israel-Palestine conflict and on academic boycotts more generally. “We stand together, however, in opposing legislation that would subject New York State funding for colleges and universities to this political litmus test,” the delegates declared.

A national bill similar to the original New York legislation appears to be going nowhere. “Two major Jewish groups – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League – are not planning to back a bill in Congress that would withhold federal funding from American academic entities that boycott Israel,” said a February 7 New York Times report.

In New York, the wave of protest resulted in withdrawal of the original bill just before scheduled committee action. “Due to the large number of comments, which raised a number of concerns, the bill was removed from the Higher Education Committee agenda for further consideration,” assembly member Deborah Glick, the committee’s chair and a co-sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement.

The bill’s new version, A.8392-A, still bans use of State funds for the same types of academic activities. But if the ban is violated, the bill would no longer trigger a total cutoff of funds: instead, “it would subtract from those schools only the amount of State support” spent on the banned activities.

Same Basic Problem

But the PSC and other groups opposing the original bill said the new version has the same basic problem. As the NYSUT statement emphasized, “the denial of government funding to suppress speech” is an act that “violates the First Amendment.” That is still true of the revised legislation, opponents said. “The attempt to withhold any amount of State funding is a direct assault on our constitutionally protected right to free speech [and] an attempt to punish the exercise of academic freedom,” said a statement from the PSC’s Brooklyn College chapter.

The conflict in Albany comes less than a year after an unsuccessful effort by some NYC politicians to cut off funds to Brooklyn College after it allowed a student forum, co-sponsored by the political science department, on the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions toward Israel. “I’m a big supporter of Israel,” commented then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

Academic and civil liberties groups are continuing to mobilize against the revised bill in Albany, for which the legislative calendar is uncertain. For information on the PSC’s organizing against A.8392-A, see tinyurl.com/Albany-vs-AcadFree2014.