The IUSB Vision Weblog

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FIRE and SAF Dispute Over Terrorism Awareness Project – UPDATE: Dispute Resolved.

Posted by iusbvision on August 22, 2008

(Updated 11:15 AM)

Update II – Good News, See Below.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE) and Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) butted heads in recent days on the internet. I think both sides make good points and should open a dialogue.

SAF called for the defunding of Muslim Students Associations that fall under the criteria mentioned on its web site and FIRE retorted saying that even if these allegations are true it doesn’t matter and FIRE will defend them no matter what.

With all due respect to both organizations who have been allies and dear friends of mine; to a degree you are both right and are also both wrong. As with so many issues the devil is in the details.

The courts have set very limited criteria for what kind of censorship is allowed in a campus environment. Schools do not have to subsidize the speech of those who advocate criminal behavior, it does not have to subsidize those who engage in hate and intimidation that crosses the legal standard. Does this mean that a certain degree of hate is allowed by the courts? The answer is yes. The most offensive subjects can be studied in a scholarly manner and even reasonably advocated.

FIRE is spot on when it said,

Let’s take a look at two examples of expression for which TAP is calling on universities to defund MSA chapters. In the “Defunding the Muslim Student Association” document, TAP claims, among other things, that “[t]he University of Southern California chapter brazenly displays the Islamic hadith (‘holy teaching’) calling for the murder of all Jews on its website,” and that “[t]he MSA national headquarters recently sent Islamic bigot Sheikh Khalid Yasin to Penn State, Ohio State, the University of Minnesota and other major campuses…Sheik Yasin has said that the U.S. government was behind 9/11; that homosexuals should be put to death; that AIDS was invented in U.S. government laboratories; and that Jews are ‘filth’ deserving of death.”

While many people might strongly object to these opinions, there is no room under the First Amendment to punish a group simply for presenting or sponsoring expression that angers, offends, or even “incites hatred” of someone else.

While FIRE is quite correct in it’s legal analysis, I must also point out for example, that hate and intimidation can cross the legal line when such hate and intimidation creates a repetitive, ongoing, very hostile or threatening environment for Jewish students to the level that it jeopardizes the educational mission. Obviously if you are frightened to go to class or feel threatened in ways that are justified and rational it would certainly interfere with the university’s mission to educate you. The courts have made it clear that such hate and intimidation has to go beyond scholarly exploration, mere offensiveness, and the limits mentioned above to lose free speech protections on campus.

It is no secret that I am authoring a book on declining campus culture. My book has a chapter on campus antisemitism. I know that FIRE and SAF are well aware of cases and incidents where Jewish students and faculty have suffered illegal discrimination and hostility.

If an MSA advocates genocide or ethnic cleansing should they be denied student funds? According to my reading of case law it depends on how they say it and how it is advocated, once again the devil is in the details. One can always call the US Commission on Civil Rights, which as of 2006 is taking antisemitism and anti-Israelism on campus more seriously. One can also call the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights as well. It is possible that these government agencies can give guidelines or advice as to what in their view crosses the legal line.

SAF alleges that some Muslim Student Associations have ties to terror groups or illegal terrorist charities. If this is the case the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI should be brought in to verify these claims on a case by case basis. Colleges are under no obligation to subsidize criminal activity with student funds.

Another line that should not be crossed in my view is the advocating of the violent overthrow of the United States Government. There are some people from CAIR (Council for American Islamic Relations) who have said that the US Constitution should be replaced with Sharia Law as the highest law in the land. Saying it should is one thing, but advocating the government’s overthrow by means of force crosses the line when I am forced to subsidize it with my tax dollars and student fees.

SAF alleges that MSA’s have intimidated college press and torn down fliers and other communications of student groups they oppose. Once again the details are important here. How was the college press intimidated? There is currently a pro-Muslim political correctness on many college campuses that attempts to shame those who criticize Islam. Intimidation by political correctness is not enough. Student press must have the spine to stand up to politically correct pressures and contact FIRE and SAF if faculty and administration put that pressure on. Intimidation, as explained above, has to cross a legal standard. Attempts to censor student press by college faculty and administration should not be tolerated. If MSA’s tear down the fliers of other student groups, colleges can punish those students by expelling them, fining them, putting them on probation or even suspending their funding for a period of time that is reasonable to the offense. If college administrations are unwilling to do the right thing when there are violations, FIRE and SAF need to be called.

In my view SAF should clarify and narrow its policy on the defunding of MSA’s to bring it in line with federal law and case law. If you don’t you will be setting yourself up for a defeat. There is no question that SAF’s defunding policy statement is overly broad.

FIRE also stated:

FIRE has no way of determining whether TAP’s claims about the MSA are true, false, or somewhere in between, and for our purposes it doesn’t matter. However, we do know how to tell when someone is calling for a group to be punished for its expressiondefunding a campus group is certainly punishmentand TAP appears to be doing just that.

This statement is for the most part true; is also overly broad, but is made with the right spirit. If some MSA’s have funding or other illegal ties with terrorist organizations and/or illegal terrorist supporting charities and it can be reasonably demonstrated; colleges should not fund such an MSA and Homeland Security and the FBI should be called. Some of SAF’s allegations, if true may cross some of the legal standards written above and for example, I know FIRE does not want to see Jewish students illegally intimidated.

I am confident that FIRE does not want MSA’s, or anyone else for that matter, to break the law, tear down other student group fliers, intimidate other students or student press etc. So if some of SAF’s claims are true and violate the law, it may indeed matter.

I am aware that SAF and FIRE have good lines of communications available to them. In my view both groups should have a dialogue. A healthy dialogue about when the legal lines are crossed and what constitutes legal grey areas can be a a real benefit to those interested in such issues.

Update II – Good News

SAF is amending its defunding policy to bring it into compliance with the law and FIRE has sent me a clarification on their statement as well. FIRE and SAF had the dialogue that I was hoping for and it looks like the dispute has been settled.

When people who really care about right and wrong make mistakes, there is a dialogue and such people act quickly to resolve those mistakes. FIRE and SAF worked together to resolve the problem in such a way that everyone wins and they accomplished this in a remarkably short period of time. Now if only university administrators who make six figure salaries could be so responsive in such a positive way imagine how much better our education institutions would be.

FIRE and SAF are both dedicated organizations that are worthy of your donations. Please consider donating to them today.

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