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NYCLU, Playwright Tony Kushner And Activists In Defense Of Columbia Professor

Award-winning author and playwright Tony Kushner, educators and activists today joined with the New York Civil Liberties Union in calling for the immediate reinstatement of a Columbia University professor to a City Schools program of the Department of Education. Professor Rashid Khalidi was last month barred by the DOE and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein from taking part in any future Professional Development Programs based on what a DOE spokesman said were “past statements” by Khalidi. In a March 2nd letter to Chancellor Klein to which he has not yet responded, the NYCLU charged that barring the professor was a violation of Khalidi’s free speech rights. The NYCLU and other organizations personally brought their letters to the Chancellor’s office.

“It’s clear that the decision to remove Professor Khalidi from the program was ideologically motivated” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “When a government agency seeks to punish or to retaliate against an individual based on that individual’s political views or association, which amounts to ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ and raises serious First Amendment concerns.”

Professor Khalidi is a renowned Middle East scholar and the Director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute. He has taught a course on geography and demography of the Middle East in the City DOE’s Professional Development Program for teachers in the past few years, most recently this past February. According to the program’s creator Mark Wilner, Professor Khalidi’s past lecture was neither controversial nor political in nature.

Seen in those terms, the NYCLU believes the termination of Professor Khalidi raises serious constitutional First Amendment concerns. “Viewpoint discrimination” by government agencies is the most suspect form of speech regulation and generally is not permitted by law. It is well recognized that when a speaker is an independent messenger, government micromanagement of the content of the message violates the First Amendment.

Said Tony Kushner: “Chancellor Joel Klein’s banning of Professor Rashid Khalidi from teaching in the Department of Education’s Professional Development Program is a shameful decision. The Chancellor should rescind it and apologize to Professor Khalidi, who is a respected scholar whose views absolutely should be included in any intelligent discussion of the situation in the Middle East. Even if Professor Khalidi’s views resembled those that have been attributed to him by his critics—and they do not—firing a teacher on the basis of his or her political beliefs is impermissible.”

Joining the NYCLU and Kushner in support of Professor Khalidi were Monica Tarazi of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of Bay Ridge; retired CUNY Professor of History Stephen Leberstein, Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee of the Professional Staff Congress (a union for university faculty); and other educators.

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