California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks re civility and free speech

CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM

September 11, 2014

Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor

University of California – Berkeley

Dear Chancellor Dirks,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom,* a group of 150 academics committed to academic freedom on university campuses, writes in response to your public message to the Berkeley community, titled “Civility and Free Speech” and distributed electronically on September 5. The text is rife with errors, which, coming from a university chancellor, raise serious concerns and prompt this response.

The most glaring error is your apparent lack of understanding of the actual meaning of free speech, as well as its relationship to academic freedom. While you do not mention academic freedom, it is a core issue for your intended audience. Another issue that you do not mention but is likely to have prompted your message is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You write: “when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.” On 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 to “civility.” We read your message as a manifestation of this problem.

In timing and substance, your message echoes events over the last two months at the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign following the unilateral decision by Chancellor Phyllis Wise to “un-hire” Associate Professor Steven Salaita. Wise claimed that she made her decision out of concern that Salaita might be an uncivil presence on that campus because of some of his Twitter posts during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza; he was reacting to the enormous carnage and destruction. As critics of Wise’s announcement immediately and continuously have pointed out, Salaita was tweeting as a private citizen, exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. However, the real motivation for Wise’s decision, as we now know thanks to the FOIA release of email traffic to and from her office, was her desire to accommodate some wealthy donors and alumni who communicated their anger and threatened to withhold support for the school if Salaita were to join the faculty because his public profile includes criticism of Israeli state policies (which opportunists and those unlearned in the issues spuriously try to conflate with anti-Semitism). Wise’s decision was unwise and potentially illegal. Her decision to refuse employment to a tenured professor, who was selected, vetted, and approved through the university’s normal channels, has been condemned by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), as well as other professional associations and thousands of academics.

In regard to the contents of your message, you claim that civility is a necessary condition for free speech. Specifically, you write: “Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin…” That is flatly wrong, and your reasoning is menacing to free speech. While civility and the exercise of free speech may coexist harmoniously, the right to free speech not only permits but is designed to protect uncivil speech. You also make the startlingly ill-informed claim that “the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.” Certainly not all kinds of speech are protected under the law (e.g., incitement and harassment), but as another critic of your message has already pointed out, political advocacy is the apotheosis of free speech, and there is no “demagoguery” exception to the First Amendment.

The right to free speech is not the act of speaking or engaging in communicative actions to express ideas publicly, nor is it contingent on the notion that anyone else needs to listen, agree, speak back, or “feel safe.” Rather, the right to free speech is constituted through prohibitions on the infringement of speech, including restrictions framed as “civility” rules. While civility is an ideal—and a good one, free speech is a right. The right to free speech does not dissipate because it is exercised in unideal (uncivil) ways.

There are at least two important ways in which the right to free speech and academic freedom intersect. First, every person in the jurisdiction of the United States has a constitutional right to free speech, including faculty, students, administrators, and staff who compose academic communities. While there remains some disagreement about how much freedom of speech people enjoy in private universities, there is—or should be—no question about free speech rights at public universities because they are understood to be and to operate as extensions of the state. Second, the right to free speech is one of the three pillars of academic freedom, which is a “guild” right of the professoriate. The three pillars of academic freedom are: (1) the freedom to conduct and disseminate scholarly research; (2) the freedom to design courses and teach students in the areas of their expertise; and (3) the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment which in this context prohibits the professional penalization of professors for extramural speech. Academic freedom is not absolute; rather, what is acceptable or unacceptable for professors as such is determined by the guild, not by administrators, alumni, or donors. Those determinations are based on standards of scholarly excellence and achievement, which manifest through hiring, publication of scholarship following peer review processes, and career reviews in which an individual’s academic record is judged by other professors in his or her field. Those who administer institutions of higher learning bear a responsibility for the protection of academic freedom, which includes free speech in the ways described here.

In conclusion, we regard the arguments you put forward in your message to be incompatible with your responsibility as the Chancellor of UC Berkeley because they contradict the principles of free speech and academic freedom. We request that you publicly withdraw that message, and send a different one that actually affirms your commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

Sincerely yours,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Contacts:

Sondra Hale, Research Professor and Professor Emerita, UCLA; phone: 310-836-5121; email: sonhale@ucla.edu

Lisa Hajjar, Professor of Sociology, UCSB, and Edward Said Chair of American Studies, American University of Beirut; email: lhajjar@soc.ucsb.edu

David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English, UC Riverside

David.lloyd@ucr.edu

909-964-9946

CC:

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, UC Davis

Chancellor Howard Gillman, UC Irvine

Chancellor Gene Block, UC Los Angeles

Chancellor Dorothy Leland, UC Merced

Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox, UC Riverside

Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, UC San Diego

Chancellor Sam Hawgood, UC San Francisco

Chancellor Henry Yang, UC Santa Barbara

Chancellor George Blumenthal, UC Santa Cruz

Chancellor Timothy White, Cal State University

President Alexander Gonzalez, Cal State Sacramento

President Les Wong, San Francisco State University

President Soraya M. Coley, Cal State Pomona

President William Covino, Cal State Los Angeles

President Charles Reed, Cal State Chico

President Leroy M. Morishita, Cal State East Bay

President Joseph F. Sheley, Cal State Stanislaus

President Eduardo Ochoa, Cal State Monterey Bay

President Joseph I. Castro, Cal State Fresno

Chancellor Mildred Garcia, Cal State Fullerton

Chancellor Tomás D. Morales, Cal State San Bernardino

Chancellor Diane F. Harrison, Cal State Northridge

Chancellor Lisa A. Rossbacher, Cal State Humboldt

Chancellor Eliot Hirshman, San Diego State

Chancellor Karen Haynes, Cal State San Marcos

Chancellor Ruben Armiñana, Sonoma State

* 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.

September 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Open Letter to Chancellor Wise of UIUC re firing of Steven Salaita

CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM

August  8, 2014

Chancellor Phyllis Wise

Office of the Chancellor

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Swanlund Administration Building

601 E. John Street

Champaign, IL 61820

Dear Chancellor Wise,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom* is an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred fifty faculty at universities and colleges throughout California. The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities.

We are therefore extremely disturbed by the account published in Inside Higher Education, which states that your institution, having publicly confirmed the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita as Associate Professor (with tenure) of American Indian Studies after the customary full review, subsequently withdrew the offer.  This action on your part has reportedly been taken on account of tweets and other public statements made by Professor Salaita regarding the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza.

We are both concerned and perplexed by this action, which would be tantamount to firing a tenured faculty member without review or stated grounds.  In particular, we are disturbed that Professor Salaita’s constitutionally protected expression of his views, not disseminated in the name of the university or at its expense, may have served as the pretext for his dismissal.  We have been unable to discover anything in the cited tweets that exceeds the limits of strongly expressed and sometimes satirical modes of speech and found nothing that a reasonable and impartial reviewer could consider to be injurious or racist speech. Indeed, if there were questions about Prof. Salaita’s “civility” or “collegiality” that would have impacted his work as a teacher or scholar, it is hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been discovered and addressed far earlier in the hiring process by the committee that vetted his scholarly work, which has made no secret of his opinions, or his teaching record. But neither “decorum” nor “civility”, highly subjective judgments in any case, have any bearing on the essential right to freedom of expression.  Censure or censorship of such political rhetoric would seriously infringe on the range and manner of allowable expression and subject any professor who participates in the public sphere to an alarming degree for precarity, merely for practicing the kind of public critical exchange that we hopefully still encourage our students to engage in as citizens.

Yet more alarming is the strong evidence in the current climate that Professor Salaita’s dismissal comes in response to the pressure of interested lobbying by individuals or organizations who are opposed to his political views. Increasingly, such groups are intervening in campus matters across the nation, and they do so with the intent of chilling freedom of expression.  Usually, however, their claims 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. 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 non-violent manner.

To assert the existence of such protections constitutes a profound infringement of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and deliberation on which the university is based. 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.

If, as there is strong reason to suppose, your dismissal of Professor Salaita is based on such pressures, you have failed to defend crucial principles of academic freedom on grounds that have no place in the university.  If your dismissal was based on the fact or content of Professor Salaita’s expression of his views in the public sphere, you have infringed both on his rights as a member of the university community and on his first amendment rights.  We urge you to reverse this peremptory decision without delay and to apologize publicly for the pain and anxiety that you have caused Professor Salaita and his family.

Sincerely,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Contact Persons:

Jess Ghannam, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, jess.ghannam@gmail.com

Mark Levine, Department of History, U.C. Irvine, mlevine@uci.edu

David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English, U.C. Riverside, david.lloyd@ucr.edu

Susan Slyomovics, Professor of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles, ssly@anthro.ucla.edu

*CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM is a group of over 150 professors at universities and colleges throughout California.  The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities.  Our goal of protecting California Scholars based mainly in institutions of higher education has grown broader in scope to include threats to academic freedom across the United States, and where relevant, globally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.

August 9, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Open Letter to Address Violations of the Right to Education and Academic Freedom of the People of Gaza

CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM

An Open Letter to Address

Violations of the Right to Education and Academic Freedom

of the People of Gaza

California Scholars for Academic Freedom,* an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred fifty faculty at universities and colleges throughout California, strongly condemns the ongoing Israeli government assault on Gaza. At this moment of temporary ceasefire, Israel’s assault has killed nearly1900 Palestinians, most of them civilians, including hundreds of children. Like all people of conscience, we deplore above all the loss of life and the injury to people, whether Palestinian or Israeli, and condemn unequivocally the conduct of warfare by any party in a manner that inevitably and willfully leads to the slaughter of innocent civilians.

As an organization of scholars, however, it is our mission to note that, as in previous assaults, the Israeli government has targeted schools and universities, including at least three United Nations facilities that were being used as shelters by civilians who had been forced out of their homes by Israeli military threats and had no other refuge.  Beyond these strikes, which the UN condemns as possible war crimes, at least 167 schools and six universities have been damaged by the month-long Israeli assault, including most recently the Islamic University of Gaza. While the Israeli government characteristically claims that these incidents were the result of the use of these schools by Hamas combatants or activists, or of the proximity of these facilities to active combat, no evidence has been produced to corroborate these claims, and the United Nations has documented its very numerous communications of its schools’ locations to the Israeli forces.  

We deplore these assaults both on civilians and on educational infrastructure in the ongoing Israeli government assault.  However, we equally condemn the continuous if less manifestly violent and destructive measures that the Israeli government has adopted against the basic educational rights of the Palestinian population of Gaza.  In the course of its blockade of Gaza since 2006, a blockade largely considered illegal under international law and expressly planned to reduce the entire civilian population to the most minimal levels of subsistence, Israel has not only denied essential construction materials for the rebuilding of educational institutions destroyed in its previous campaigns, but even prevented the importation of such basic educational supplies as pens and paper. Its act of sustained collective punishment also targets basic medical supplies, foodstuffs, and other necessities of life that inevitably affect the well-being of young people and children who form a very high proportion of the civilian population on whom this petty and vicious war of deprivation has been inflicted.

Furthermore, having so drastically curtailed the basic means to education, the Israeli government has denied to students in Gaza the right to travel in order to take up scholarships for study abroad or to continue their education at more advanced levels than Gazan institutions can offer by attending universities on the West Bank.  Those who attempt to do so are labeled infiltrators and risk arrest, deportation or even incarceration.  Israel has denied to faculty the right to travel to conferences or to do research on arbitrary grounds and generally infringed in a daily and systematic manner on fundamental rights to academic freedom.  

Nor has Gaza been the only area in which universities and schools have recently been occupied or targeted by Israeli forces. In the lead up to the current offensive, using what is now admitted to have been the mere pretext of the abduction of three settler youths, as reported by the Palestinian policy institute, Al-Shabaka, the Israeli army raided the campuses of five institutions of higher education, including Birzeit University near Ramallah, the Arab American University in Jenin, Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, and the Polytechnic University of Palestine in Hebron.  In the course of these raids, heavily armed Israeli soldiers attacked and arrested students, detained university guards, destroyed university property and equipment, and confiscated student organization materials. The Israeli army also raided and subsequently used the Palestine Ahliya University as a holding ground for detainees arrested during a separate raid of Dheisha Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. These assaults on educational institutions are not exceptional, but constitute a long-standing aspect of the Israeli government’s illegal occupation of the West Bank as well as Gaza.

This is the third time in five years that the Israeli government has unleashed its enormous military power, funded and supplied by the United States, on a sliver of land that houses nearly two million people who have no means of escape, whose most fundamental means to life, including water and power, have been steadily deteriorated, and whose homes have been systematically destroyed.  The current offensive on Gaza, in its apparently deliberate targeting of civilians, is the most extreme manifestation of the deprivation of the Palestinian people of Gaza of even the most fundamental rights to life.  But it is continuous with the Israeli government’s ongoing assault on the Palestinians’ ability to maintain their cultural and intellectual life also.  

In addition to the unspeakable violence of the last three weeks the military assault on a predominantly civilian population, and the great loss of life that this has entailed, we deplore and condemn the deleterious impact the blockade and the violence has had on educational opportunities for Palestinians.

We therefore urge our university and college presidents and our elected representatives to speak forthrightly against the Israeli government’s denial to Palestinians of educational facilities and opportunities by violence and blockade.  Many of them, with the pretext of defending academic freedom, have recently condemned non-violent efforts by academic associations and student organizations to boycott or divest from Israel’s academic or economic institutions.   To say nothing now in the face of Israel’s egregious destruction and invasion of educational facilities in Palestine is to condone a gross and ongoing humanitarian disaster and to be complicit in the continuing denial of fundamental freedoms, including academic freedoms, to a profoundly vulnerable civilian population.

Sincerely,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Contact persons:

Professor Larry Gross, School of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California, lpgross@asc.usc.edu

David Lloyd, Department of English, University of California, Riverside,

david.lloyd@ucr.edu

Ahlam Muhtaseb, Associate Professor, Communication Studies,

California State University, San Bernardino, AMuhtase@csusb.edu

*CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM is a group of over 150 professors at universities and colleges throughout California.  The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities.  Our goal of protecting California Scholars based mainly in institutions of higher education has grown broader in scope to include threats to academic freedom across the United States, and where relevant, globally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.

August 9, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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