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NYCLU Defends Academic Freedom At Columbia University

The New York Civil Liberties Union today called on Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to resist attacks from within and outside the university that jeopardize academic freedom at Columbia. The NYCLU letter to President Bollinger indicates that at issue is whether professors teaching controversial subject matter that offends some students should be disciplined or face recrimination for expressing unpopular views in their classrooms.

“There must be ideological diversity, pluralism and tolerance in the campus community,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “Critics outside the university should not interfere with academic freedom. We urge Columbia University to ensure, that in responding to student complaints, its investigation not descend into an inquisition into the political views of professors.”

The controversy at Columbia arose out of a film produced by the David Project called “Columbia Unbecoming” which is at yet unreleased for public viewing. The film reportedly contains accusations that Columbia professors — particularly from the Middle East Asian Language and Culture (MEALAC) Department – have taken positions that are critical of the state of Israel. The film reportedly charges the MEALAC professors have engaged in the harassment and intimidation of students “when they voiced pro-Israel views.”

One of the professors from the MEALAC Department, Joseph Massad, has issued a detailed and vigorous response to the accusations, calling the David Project film “a witch-hunt.” However, these accusations have provoked a variety of responses critical of the MEALAC Department, including a demand by Congressman Anthony Weiner that Professor Massad be fired. The NYCLU believes that it is necessary to protect diversity of discourse within academic communities even if such intellectual pursuits are provocative, unorthodox and controversial.

“Faculty members must retain broad latitude to think as they will and to write as they think,” said Arthur N. Eisenberg, Legal Director of the NYCLU. “They should suffer no recriminations from outside the academy for the content of their scholarship.”

This does not mean that scholarship is immune from criticism within the academic community. Tenure decision and promotions appropriately rest upon critical assessments of a scholar’s writings. Moreover, students should be free to advance their criticism of professors in student newspapers and in off-campus publications; at rallies; in their course evaluations and in private conversations and even in their classrooms, if invited to do so by the professor. But the right of students to an appropriate learning environment does not immunize them from ideas that they find provocative, disturbing or even offensive. And they cannot expect that that their professors will trim the cut of their convictions so as not to offend the sensibilities of their students.

It is clear that this controversy would not have acquired the attention it received if it were simply about the rudeness of professors or their intolerance of other points of view. This David Project film would not have provoked controversy had it not arisen out of the divisive political controversy involving Israel and Palestine. The attack on Professor Massad and other in the MEALAC Department is really about their scholarship and political expression.

As donors, politicians, newspaper editorial boards and other outsiders have entered the fray, the NYCLU is concerned that the ad hoc committee investigation called for by President Bollinger will become a vehicle for intrusion into principles of academic freedom and upon political speech. While outsiders are free to criticize, they should not support their substantive arguments with threats and sanctions.

“The NYCLU has grave reservations about an ad hoc committee engaging in an investigation of this matter,” said Udi Ofer, Project Director of the NYCLU’s Bill of Rights Defense Campaign. “Holding professors to account for their political statements runs a severe risk of intrusion by administrators into academic content and political ideology.”

The NYCLU calls on President Bollinger to hold a university symposium to explore fully the real issues that have provoked this controversy. The broad array of perspectives and viewpoints on this divisive topic can be used to address the current disagreements that so obviously exist.

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