New York’s War on Academic Freedom

The New York State Legislature is readying to pass a bill that would make it illegal for any college or university in the state to use public monies to fund faculty membership in — or travel to — academic organizations that boycott the institutions of another country.

The New York State Legislature is readying to pass a bill that would make it illegal for any college or university in the state to use public monies to fund faculty membership in — or travel to — academic organizations that boycott the institutions of another country.

The clear target of this legislation, as the Speaker of the State Assembly has made clear, is the American Studies Association. The bill has already passed the New York State Senate; it is going to be voted on some time this week in the Assembly.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild state in this letter, the bill raises a host of constitutional red flags. Boycotts are time-honored expressive activities, protected as speech under the First Amendment. The clear and stated purposed of this legislation is to suppress speech on the basis of its content.

Beyond these constitutional issues, this bill would have a direct effect on many of my friends and colleagues at CUNY, who are members of the ASA or travel to the ASA for its conferences, and who often use what little resources CUNY provides for this kind of thing to travel to the ASA.

This bill needs to be stopped, either in the State Assembly or at the desk of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.  This website contains valuable information about whom to contact in the New York State legislature. Please take the time to do so right now. There is apparently increasing trepidation about the bill among influential members of the Assembly; your phone call or email could make a difference.

If you would like to sign this letter of protest — which does not endorse the academic boycott but instead calls upon the Legislature and the Governor to uphold the First Amendment — please email Alana Krivo-Kaufman at [email protected] by Monday morning, 9:00 am.

In organizing signatures for this letter and talking to people about this bill, I’ve been getting some pushback from folks claiming that the bill is no different from the ASA boycott itself. As false as that claim is, I welcome it, as it provides an excellent opportunity to clarify what the ASA boycott is (and isn’t) — and to point out which side of this debate is the quickest to use coercion when it serves its purposes.

The ASA boycott is voluntary: Individual members of the ASA are free to oppose it; they are free to travel to Israeli conferences and to organize joint programs with Israeli institutions — all the while that they remain ASA members in good standing. In other words, there is no penalty for not complying with the boycott. It is, as I say, voluntary.

The ASA boycott is not about individuals. Indeed, the ASA has invited Israeli scholars to its next conference. It merely seeks to sever institutional relationships: Junior Year Abroad between a university in the States and a university in Israel, joint programs and projects between universities in the two countries. That kind of thing.

The ASA boycott is not a blacklist, at least not in any sense of the term that I’m familiar with.

Now let’s compare the ASA boycott to this New York State legislation.

The legislation is (by definition) not voluntary: It mandates that colleges and universities not use state monies for the purpose of funding faculty membership in or travel to boycotting organizations like the ASA.

It is coercive: Any college or university that does use state monies in a way that the law prohibits will have the entirety of its state funding cut for that year.

It is about individuals: It directly targets individual professors, seeking to stop them from joining the ASA or traveling to the ASA, and only targets institutions secondarily, if they do not comply with the law.

If you’re against the boycott or wavering about it because you worry about the injection into academia of measures that may be non-voluntary, that may be coercive, or that may target individuals, I won’t ask you to stop worrying about that, though I think you should.

Instead, I’ll suggest that as you continue worrying and thinking about that, you take a stand against legislation that actually does inject into academia a measure that is non-voluntary, that is coercive, and that does target individuals.

I just learned this morning that the Maryland State Legislature will soon be considering a copy cat bill, prohibiting the use of state funds for the purposes of travel to — or membership in — the ASA or a similar boycotting organization. The bill is not identical, but very similar.

What this means is that this anti-boycott movement is now officially an organized, state-by-state endeavor. Opposing it will require a comprehensive national campaign. Recently, some have raised the prospect of a left-libertarian alliance over issues of civil liberties. Perhaps we can do a test run of that alliance on this issue.

If we can mobilize against this bill even one-tenth of the agita that has been mobilized against the ASA boycott, we should be able to defeat it.