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Maryland bills would stifle academic freedom [Commentary]

The proposed legislation is intended to enhance the free exchange of ideas but would instead squelch it

By Melani McAlister

3:10 PM EST, February 12, 2014

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Bills before the Maryland Senate and House would prevent the use of public college and university funds to support scholarly involvement in academic organizations that have voted to boycott Israel. The legislation is a serious threat to academic freedom, and it should be withdrawn from consideration. If there is a vote, the state's legislators should take a strong stance against this attempt to shut down open discussion of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

The Maryland bill — like a similar bill now stalled in the New York legislature after much public protest and one introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives — is a response to the recent decision by the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott institutional relationships with the Israeli government or Israeli universities. The American Studies scholars were responding to the call by Palestinian organizations asking the international community to protest Israel's policies toward the Palestinian population, including the ongoing illegal expansion of West Bank settlements.

The ASA's boycott resolution is understandably controversial. Some members of the organization disagree — often strongly — with the decision. There has been much debate about its wisdom, its morality and its efficacy as a political action. While some charge that the resolution unfairly singles out Israel for criticism, others argue that it is really Israel's status as America's closest ally in the Middle East that demands Americans speak out on Israel's policies. This debate is an important one, and it will continue.

In considering the ASA boycott decision, it's important to recognize that whether or not one thinks it was a good idea, it does not violate the academic freedom of Israeli or American scholars. Despite the claims of pundits and politicians, there is no provision in the vote that harms ordinary academic exchanges. It mandates that the ASA will not, as an organization, develop partnerships with Israeli institutions. It does not affect what individual academic departments do: They will invite Israeli speakers when they wish, admit Israeli students, support study abroad. In other words, the resolution places no limits on research or teaching. The ASA has also stated explicitly that the boycott does not apply to academic papers by individual Israeli scholars, some of whom have presented at conferences in the past and are welcome to continue to do so.

By contrast, Maryland Senate Bill 647 and House Bill 998 do threaten academic freedom and aim to squelch the free exchange of ideas. The bills would forbid public institutions of higher learning from providing financial support for individual scholars who want to join the ASA or attend one of its conferences. The question of how Americans should respond to the deteriorating situation in Israel and Palestine — what our government should do, what we as individuals can or should do — should be openly and freely debated. Instead, by seeking to sanction the ASA for its boycott vote and by punishing individual ASA members, politicians in Annapolis are doing exactly what they claim to be fighting against.

Let's be clear about what the bills would mean in practical terms. National scholarly conferences are crucial for academics; it is where they present and discuss their ideas. But under these bills, a professor or graduate student would face economic and intellectual pressure. If, for example, she wanted to present her paper at an ASA conference, be it an analysis of 19th century American literature or a study of the African American civil rights movement, she would have to find a way to pay for the fees and travel out of her own pocket. Yet a scholar in the office next door who presents a paper at any other conference, whether his paper be a study of 19th century American literature or a highly controversial proposal about U.S policy toward Iran (or Israel, or China), would get the usual research support to do so. The point will not be lost on scholars: if they are to be penalized just for being members of an organization whose policies legislators do not like, how much more will they feel under threat if they want to actually discuss the boycott, or even to advocate for it?

Opposition to this kind of legislation has been voiced by the American Association of University Professors, the Middle East Studies Association, and many others, including the New York Times, which opposed the New York bill. It is vital that our universities and colleges remain a space of free and open discussion, where dissenting voices can be heard and ideas are freely exchanged. A healthy democracy requires that we support debate, especially when the issues are so charged. As a Marylander, I am certain that our state deserves better than these draconian attempts to silence debate about one of the vital issues of our time.

Melani McAlister is a member of the American Studies Association and an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC. She may be reached at melani.mcalister@gmail.com.


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