Is censorship corrupting the heart of academia?
In Tampa Bay, Florida, a fiery debate is heating up between university administrators who fear a faculty member is supporting a front for a Palestinian terrorist network and a once-respected computer science professor who has, for most of his life, tried to check his politics at the door.
At stake is one man's job, a university's reputation and the principle of academic freedom and all it entails in this new era, defined by America's newfound War on Terror.
Sami Al-Arian was hired as an assistant professor in the faculty of computer science at the University of South Florida on Jan. 22, 1986.
For most of his life, he would tell you, he has been a Palestinian activist. He was the founder of a think-tank called World and Islam Studies Enterprise Inc. in Temple Terrace, Fla. in 1991 to help promote his views, and has travelled the world giving speeches.
And yes, he is outspoken that is something he would never deny.
Another thing he wouldn't hesitate to tell you is that his boss would like to have him fired for his outspoken, controversial views, and his boss is taking him to court to try and do so. Never before has a university asked a court to help remove a tenured professor from its staff.
At least, that's what he told me on the phone last week.
"It's basically because of my activism. Some people don't like the fact that I have been active for some time. They are, therefore, trying to silence me. One way to do that is to de legitimize [my] existence by throwing out all these false accusations and by tainting my reputation," Al-Arian said.
In December, 2001, the USF board voted 12-1 to dismiss Al-Arian, whom
they accused of having ties to terrorist organizations following his appearance
on a FOX talk-show called The O'Reilly Factor.
"The producer, when she called me, said she was looking specifically for a Muslim from Florida to speak about Sept. 11 because most of the hijackers came from Florida. I told them about my activism and she said, 'great'," Al-Arian said, noting the producer said he would be interviewed about his think-tank.
"But it was a trap. That wasn't her intention. They didn't ask any of those questions," he said.
Instead, Al-Arian said, the host brought up mis-translated excerpts from a speech he gave more than a decade ago in Arabic and grilled him about his alleged terrorist connections. Al-Arian was quoted as having uttered the phrases "Jihad is our path. Victory for Islam. Death to Israel. Revolution. Revolution until victory" in the said speech.
The interview was widely broadcast in the United States and started a flood of hate mail, threatening calls and e-mails, and even a death threat coming to the university.
For security reasons, USF placed Al-Arian on paid leave on Sept. 27, 2001 until it was deemed safe for him to return to campus, and an investigation by the university into Al-Arian's activities ensued.
More than one year later, Al-Arian has yet to be summoned back to work. Last month, he received notification from the university stating they have elected to ask the courts to rule on the constitutionality of a new plan to fire Al-Arian, a tenured professor, citing safety concerns and terrorist connections as reasons for his dismissal.
"This controversy over Dr. Al-Arian is consuming resources of many divisions of the university... the university police advise that we cannot guarantee the safety of Dr. Al-Arian and students, faculty and staff around him if he were back on campus," USF President Judy Genshaft told the board upon making her decision to dismiss Al-Arian.
"Academic freedom is revered at USF. We understand that our scholars must be free to pursue ideas in their academic field, wherever they may lead. [But] I have come to a conclusion about the fundamental question of how much disruption the university must endure because of the manner in which a professor exercises his right to express political and social views that are outside the scope of his employment," she said.
Al-Arian, who said he was surprised to learn of the university's plan to fire him, said he has always tried to keep his politics separate from his work.
"I made a conscious decision early on not to be politically active on the USF campus. I don't want people to be intimidated by my politics," he said.
Last week, Al-Arian admitted he has been investigated by the U.S. federal immigration and justice officials during his time at USF, although records show he was never charged. Even now, he says he is not worried about losing his job.
"I am a victim of intolerance. I didn't choose to be the poster child for freedom of speech, but now that I've been put through that, I will fight, and I don't regret that one bit. I think people have to be courageous and brave enough to believe in what they do that they may have to suffer," he said.
"Academic freedom hasn't changed [since Sept. 11], but if you are holding an unpopular position, some people have been using that as a way to make you a target in the so-called 'War against terrorism.'
"For people to come and try to crucify or persecute people based on their political views, to me, is un-American, unconstitutional and should not be given legitimacy," he said.