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Ibish discusses freedom of speech in the case of a university professor

ARTHEL NEVILLE, HOST: All right everybody, hello, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. I’m Arthel Neville.
If a university professor has alleged ties to terrorists, should he lose his job? That’s the debate surrounding University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian. Some 10 years ago, he allegedly said “Death to Israel” on videotape. Now, shortly after those statements were made public on a national television show, al-Arian was put on paid leave. Here to fill us in on this story is CNN’s Mark Potter in Miami. Mark — first of all tell us who is Sami Al Arian?
MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Arthel, Sami Al-Arian is a Palestinian immigrant who came to the United States in 1975. He taught computer engineering at the University of South Florida. He also was engaged in pro-Palestinian political activities.
He ran an Islamic charity and think-tank, and for years he has been under investigation by the U.S. government by investigators of the Justice Department. In fact, that investigation continues today, looking into whether the charity was used to help fund terrorist activities in the Middle East.
Now, to be clear, no charges have ever been filed, and al-Arian denies any wrongdoing, denies any involvement with terrorism. Now, the university says that it wants power to fire Sami Al-Arian. It is asking a court to determine whether that would violate his constitutional rights.
Al-Arian says it would definitely violate his rights, his right to free speech. He says it would also violate the spirit of academic freedom. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I am a minority, I am an Arab, I am Palestinian, I am a Muslim. That’s not a popular thing to be these days. Do I have rights or don’t I have rights? Right now, it seems like the majority of the people think, no, you don’t have rights, because you don’t agree with us, and I think that’s wrong.
POTTER: Now, the university’s position is that Al-Arian’s activities detract from the university’s mission, and put the school at risk.
In a letter to him, the university president said that the university was accusing him of bringing terrorists into the United States and was helping to fund a terrorist organization.
JUDY GENSHAFT, USF PRESIDENT: I believe that Dr. Al-Arian has abused his position at the university, and is using academic freedom as a shield to cover improper activities.
POTTER: Now, again, Al-Arian categorically denies these accusations, and points out that an immigration judge two years ago looked at the evidence and said that there was no provable link between the charity and any terrorist activities. And he vows fight the university’s actions in court — Arthel.
NEVILLE: So, Mark, this means that the university or the government at this point, neither has concrete evidence of any ties to terrorist groups with the professor?
POTTER: Well, nothing that has led to any charges. He has not been charged at all.
NEVILLE: Now, tell us about his brother-in-law, the professor’s brother-in-law. I understand this morning he was deported.
POTTER: That’s correct. There was a development today. His brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar was deported. He had been in jail for about nine months, arrested after September 11 for a visa violation. He was deported to the Middle East. We do not know exactly where. His lawyers say that he is going to a U.S.-friendly Middle Eastern country. They do not want to say where that is until he gets settled in, and they are sure that he is safe.
Now, he drew national attention a while ago when he was jailed for three-and-a-half years on what the government described as secret evidence. He, too, was suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, again, allegations that he categorically and strongly denied. But he was held in jail without charges ever being filed. The government never showed him the evidence and never told him the source of the evidence. However, in court, it was presented to a judge, and in December of the year 2000, a judge ruled that his rights had been violated, and he was released. But then again, after September 11, he was rearrested on the visa charge, and now he is out of the country. He was sent out without his family. We are told that the lawyers are making arrangements for the family to join him, but right now, he has gone alone in the custody of the Immigration Service to a Middle Eastern country.
NEVILLE: Mark Potter, thank you very much for filling in the blanks.
And obviously, the university and the professor sit on opposite sides of a fence. Now, who’s right, who’s wrong, or is that even a fair question? Here to talk about it are Hussein Ibish, the communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
Welcome to both of you.
NEVILLE: OK, Mr. Ibish, you’re going to be up first on this one.
IBISH: Sure.
NEVILLE: How do you see it?
IBISH: Well, I think that the attempt to fire this guy, because of his alleged political beliefs, because of inflammatory remarks he made, you know, 12 years ago or 10 years ago, is an absolute violation of academic freedom. It’s a clear attack on tenure. It’s a violation of free speech rights. It’s outrageous. It’s McCarthyism.
And until, you know, the government arrests him on some charge, he has to be presumed innocent. Even then, there is a presumption of innocence. And there is no basis for firing someone, because we don’t like his political views. It’s outrageous.
NEVILLE: Now, let me ask you this, Mr. Ibish. What about the allegations that the professor has financial ties to terrorist groups?
IBISH: Well, all I can do is read from the ruling from October 2000, which is not long ago, long after all of these events supposedly took place, from Judge R. Kevin McHugh, who ruled that — quote: “Although there were allegations that ICP and the WISE, [the groups that Al-Arian was involved with], were fronts for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before this court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the PIJ [an alleged terrorist group]. To the contrary, this there is evidence on the record to support that conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded.”
So a judge has ruled that all of this is bogus, and until we have some reason based in fact to think otherwise, I think that the presumption has to be that this is a political witch-hunt, a vendetta, and a kind of very, very ugly post-9/11 McCarthyism.
NEVILLE: So bottom line, what’s the hidden agenda here? Is there one?
IBISH: I don’t think there’s a hidden agenda. I think the agenda is overt. I think that, you know, media criticism of Professor Al-Arian and a lot of charges swirling around created an uncomfortable situation for the university. The university had been defending him until this whole thing broke out in October 2001 in the national media. And now suddenly, the university wants to get rid of him. I think they think it’s an embarrassment, and they think the easiest thing is just to fire him and get rid of him, and it can all just go away.
The problem is the American Association of University Professors had said that if they do that, they will censure USF. And it would be the first time an American university has been censured, since the firing of professors during the McCarthy era. And that’s because that’s exactly what this is. It’s a throw back to the ugliest days of the Red scare and the McCarthy era.
NEVILLE: OK, hang on for me. Mr. Kent, I want to get to you, but I do want to take a call right now. John is calling in.
John, where are you calling from?
JOHN: From Massachusetts. This is communism American-style. This is Bushism, not McCarthyism. This is a front on all minorities. If are not going along with their program, execute them, persecute them, or run them out of the country or send them back to Africa.
NEVILLE: John, thank you so much for calling.
Mr. Kent, do you agree or disagree with the caller?
PHIL KENT, SOUTHEASTERN LEGAL FOUNDATION: Well, I think the caller is wrong. And I am really sad to see the Anti-Discrimination Committee, a group I once respected, try to defend this person, this professor. It’s not a free speech issue. The man has advocated violence.
When you say “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” that’s going beyond words. That’s going beyond just supporting the pro-Palestinian cause. Yes, maybe there should be a Palestinian state, and that’s fine. You can be an activist. There are many responsible Arabs and American-Muslims. That’s not the point.
This man said in a fundraising letter that he was for jihad, the holy war. These are very inflammatory, violence-prone statements.
A university, like the University of South Florida, has every right to protect its reputation. They haven’t fired him yet. In fact, if I was president of the South Florida University, I probably would have fired him by now.
But they are taking appropriate steps, they are questioning him. He is an embarrassment. They have a right to protect their image.
IBISH: Well, with respect, if we were to fire every university professor who said inflammatory things or who said even silly or stupid things, there would be a huge list of people. We had Mr. Murray and Hernstein up at Harvard write a book about how African- Americans are genetically inferior to other races. We’ve had…
KENT: Well, he didn’t say silly or foolish things. He advocates violence.
IBISH: Yes, you know, there are many professors…
KENT: You’re supporting violence.
IBISH: No, I don’t agree that he advocates directly violence. He just said…
KENT: “Death to America?” What does “Death to America” mean?
IBISH: “Death to Israel” does not necessarily mean violence.
KENT: What does “Death to America” mean?
IBISH: You know, he didn’t say that…
NEVILLE: He said “Death to Israel.”
IBISH: I would agree that it’s an inflammatory statement. But that’s why we have the First Amendment.
NEVILLE: Sir, one second, OK? Because I have to take a break right now.
I love this debate. Unfortunately, I’ve got to break it off for a second.
But I want to know what you at home, what you think about this as well. So get in on this fiery debate and give me a call at 1-800-310- 4cnn, or of course, you can e-mail me at talkback@cnn.com.
I know you have something to say. I’ll let you speak after the break, OK? Back in a moment.
NEVILLE: And welcome back, everybody. We are talking with Hussein Ibish and Phil Kent about whether a Florida professor, accused of having ties to terrorism, should keep his job or not?
And apparently, we have a little bit of a sound from that tape that we were talking about where Professor Sami Al-Arian — apparently, you can read this. He says: “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam! Death to Israel and victory to Islam! Revolution. Revolution until victory! Rolling, rolling to Jerusalem.”
Hmm. Mr. Ibish…
IBISH: Well, let me…
NEVILLE: Mr. Ibish, now that was — those statements were made in 1991.
IBISH: Right, right. Very inflammatory statements. But let me point out one thing. He did not say “Death to America.” It has never been alleged that he said “Death to America.”
KENT: He said that in his fundraising letter.
IBISH: Oh, no, he did not say that — no, he did not.
KENT: He called for jihad.
IBISH: Now, what he has said is…
KENT: What does that mean?
IBISH: What he has said –look, jihad can mean a lot of things. Let me tell you. These are inflammatory statements, and I certainly wouldn’t have said them. But that’s what we have the First Amendment for, and tenure for that matter.
This is not necessarily advocating violence, but I’ll tell you who has advocated violence…
NEVILLE: No, no, no, no, hold on.
IBISH: … is Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, who…
NEVILLE: No, no, hang on for me.
IBISH: Yes, all right.
NEVILLE: Mr. Ibish…
NEVILLE: … stick to the point here and go back, finish your comment.
IBISH: Yes, sure.
NEVILLE: If you say that does not advocate violence, then what does it do?
IBISH: Well, it does not necessarily. I mean, it could mean a lot of different things. Calling for a jihad could mean a lot of different things, struggles of many kinds…
KENT: Why is he under investigation by the U.S. attorney in Tampa?
IBISH: Why hasn’t he been charged with a crime?
KENT: Is that a mistake?
IBISH: Why hasn’t he been charged when he has been investigated for 10 years? It’s been over 10 years.
KENT: You have to be investigated first.
IBISH: Well, 10 years of investigation has been going on. The man hasn’t been charged.
NEVILLE: OK, I’m going to let…
IBISH: I mean, I would assume that he hasn’t committed a crime. You should too. And until the government tells me differently, I think he deserves that presumption, for heaven’s sake. In fact, our tradition is even when accused, the presumption is innocent until convicted, until proven guilty. You’re certainly innocent until charged, for heaven’s sake.
NEVILLE: OK, hang on for me. Let me let Sara, who is calling in from California, jump in. Go ahead, Sara.
SARA: Hi. I was just saying that if somebody from American roots, with no other historical roots, that was completely American had said something possibly against Afghanistan, like “Death to Afghanistan,” nothing would have happened. He would have — nothing would have happened whatsoever. But since Mr. Al-Arian has Palestinian roots, he is getting blamed for possible terrorist ties.
NEVILLE: Right, I understand your point, Sara.
Phil Kent, is this about — is this racism?
KENT: No, it’s not racism. It’s about what a university and its reputation can withstand. We’ve heard there have been a lot of problems. The man has obviously made these prone-to-violence statements. Why can’t a university — even if he hadn’t committed a crime, that’s not the point. He can still be removed.
KENT: Ten years doesn’t mean you are protected from everyone.
IBISH: I mean, let me give you an example.
NEVILLE: Let me jump in there, because apparently, the university claims
— Mr. Ibish, hang on for a second here.
IBISH: Sure.
NEVILLE: I’ve got to get this going here.
IBISH: Of course.
NEVILLE: The university claims there have been death threats against Professor Al-Arian and the university, adding that getting rid of the professor protects his safety and that of the students. Do you buy that, Mr. Ibish?
IBISH: No, of course. It’s an obvious cop-out. It’s an obvious excuse. But let me make the point I’ve been trying to make, which is — I’ll tell you a professor who advocated violence directly. That’s Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, who advocated torturing people. And he also urged the Israelis to destroy one Palestinian village for every suicide bombing.
KENT: I’m in favor of removing Dershowitz, too, just for the record.
IBISH: You know, if that’s the approach, there’ll be no one left. I really think we need to maintain our standards of freedom, our academic freedom, our intellectual freedom, and our First Amendment rights to say things, including inflammatory things, and even, yes, dumb things.
NEVILLE: OK, hang on guys, because I have with me Tia, and she is — you are a student at the University of South Florida.
TIA: Just in response to what Mr. Ibish said. There were, in fact, death threats to the engineering department and other harassing phone calls. So we did have to evacuate the engineering department, so that was true. So I don’t necessarily think it’s all because of…
IBISH: I don’t deny that.
TIA: OK. I don’t necessarily think it’s all because of what the media said about our constitutional rights. It’s just more of a safety on the university campus.
IBISH: Yes, but the answer to that is not to fire somebody who’s being threatened. The answer to that is to beef up security. And the answer also is to call on the media, especially some TV shows, to be less, you know, hysterical about this case, and to look at it more soberly as, in fact, a lot of print media, like “The New York Times” editorial and the “St. Petersburg Times” and others have done.
NEVILLE: OK, I have an e-mail coming in right now I want to share with you. It’s from Omer in Kentucky: “Americans are entering into another McCarthy-like era. This time, though, the U.S. has targeted Islam and Arabs.”
And, sir, what’s your name? Excuse me, Mike.
MIKE: My name is Mike.
NEVILLE: What do you say, Mike?
MIKE: I have not followed this affair closely. However, I do have a working familiarity with contract law. I think there’s a problem here. Allegedly, this man has a history of inflammatory statements. Now, your note, your read-ahead does not say how long he has been at the university. When a university endows someone with tenure, it is an endorsement. First, it’s an endorsement that they believe you fit in and contribute to the life of that faculty of that school.
NEVILLE: OK, and your point is?
MIKE: Secondly, to me, I view tenure as a contract. They should have thought about that before they tenured this man, since this has gone on for some time. If they had any doubts, they should have never entered into a tenure arrangement.
NEVILLE: Thank you very much.
Phil Kent, I’m going to ask you an unfair question here, which is a yes or no answer, I’m going to need. Governor Jeb Bush is publicly supporting the university. Should he be getting involved? Yes or no?
KENT: Yes. He’s the governor of the state, and he’s over the university system. He has a right to have a bully pulpit.
NEVILLE: Mr. Ibish, yes or no?
IBISH: No, of course not, he shouldn’t be involved.
NEVILLE: OK, Hussein Ibish, thank you very much.
IBISH: Sure.
NEVILLE: Phil Kent, thank you very much for joining us.
KENT: Thanks.
NEVILLE: I’m out of time on this one, guys.
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