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USF should read and heed former governor's speech

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2002

LeRoy Collins, the governor who broke ground for the University of South Florida in 1958, eventually gave most of his official and personal papers to the institution, where they are housed in its library.

LeRoy Collins, the governor who broke ground for the University of South Florida in 1958, eventually gave most of his official and personal papers to the institution, where they are housed in its library.

Among the more than 400 boxes of the Collins Collection is a letter he wrote in 1959 that it would profit USF's current administration to read and heed.

"You can't suppress bad speeches without suppressing good ones," Collins said.

That is as splendid and as succinct a defense of academic freedom, or any other manifestation of freedom of speech, as you are ever likely to see. I came across it by chance the day before USF president Judy Genshaft announced her revised legal strategy for ridding the university of a professor over a couple of bad speeches. Though she and her lawyers maintain there is more than that to their brief against computer science professor Sami Al-Arian, they have failed to make a persuasive case that he would be in any trouble but for those speeches.

Collins' situation was different. Speaking to the Tallahassee Rotary Club, Fred Kent, a former chairman of the board that ran the universities, had attacked Collins viciously for failing to stop the University of Florida from enrolling its first black student and for allowing an all-white Miami elementary school to admit four black children. Accusing Collins of being "intensively ambitious" for the vice presidency, Kent said that only Thurgood Marshall, then the general counsel of the NAACP, "would attract fewer votes" in the South.

Highly embarrassed, the Rotary offered Collins a speech in reply. The governor declined politely, explaining that he preferred not to dignify the diatribe with a response. He went on, though, to defend Kent's right to say whatever he pleased:

"It's all a part of our free democratic system. If efforts should be made to suppress or prevent injuries of this sort, far graver injuries to the public well-being would result. You can't suppress bad speeches without suppressing good ones, and all this points up the necessity for public education if our democratic system is to survive."

A short walk down LeRoy Collins Boulevard leads from the USF library to the administration building, where Genshaft took the occasion Wednesday to charge Al-Arian with "using academic freedom as a shield to cover improper activities."

Genshaft took no questions -- on the convenient advice of counsel, you understand -- so I was unable to ask how she might reconcile Collins' words with her actions. Her attorneys conceded no conflict, asserting that Al-Arian is being punished for deeds, not words.

They must have wished, however, that they had also muzzled Dick Beard, chairman of USF's board of trustees, before he declared in so many words that he thinks Al-Arian is a terrorist because he associates with terrorists. Guilt by association is a prejudice that does not please the courts.

The entire proceeding, in fact, produced only two points of news. One was the shrewd but high stakes strategy to pre-empt censure by the American Association of University Professors by asking a judge to declare in advance that Al-Arian's firing would abridge neither his constitutional rights nor the faculty contract. This is risky because the AAUP would not be bound by anything the court says. The other was an allegation that in 1995, 10 days after a suicide bombing by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad that killed at least 18 people in Israel, Al-Arian signed a letter asking donations so that "operations such as these" could continue.

USF's problem with that letter is that by its own admission, it knew about it when it was declassified by the federal government in October 2000, nearly two years ago. But no move came to suspend or fire Al-Arian until he made what you might call a "bad speech" by appearing on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor 15 days after last Sept. 11. The university was undoubtedly embarrassed and legitimately frightened by the public's reaction. But if academic freedom is to mean more than empty words, the university's duty was to protect Al-Arian rather than offer to throw him to the mob.

I am quite prepared, however, to believe that Al-Arian sympathizes with terrorists, that he supports them in ways that are legal and perhaps in ways that are not, and that when he shouted "Death to Israel," (another "bad speech") he wasn't speaking metaphorically.

In short, I am prepared to believe the worst about him. But only when, and if, anyone proves something actionable. So far, nobody has proved anything other than that he has been a competent teacher who did not mix politics in class and gave no student cause to take offense. The FBI has worked harder on him, for all we know, than on trying to find Jimmy Hoffa, and still Al-Arian stands accused of no crime.

Genshaft argued that Al-Arian has to go "in order for us to maintain a climate for academic freedom." That recalled the line about destroying the Vietnamese village in order to save it.

"We have a history at this university of supporting unpopular thought," insisted the university's labor lawyer, Thomas M. Gonzalez. I asked whether that history began before or after the depredations of the Florida Legislative Investigating Committee of the early 1960s, which nearly strangled USF in its crib and made it the first Florida university ever to be stigmatized by AAUP censure.

"It goes back beyond that," Gonzalez replied, "although I certainly don't deny that episode. That episode was that episode."

How will USF rationalize this episode? The last censure was in force four years. How many years does USF figure it can afford this time?

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