Saturday, February 1, 2014

New York State Boycott Bill Attacks Academic Freedom; Threatens CUNY Funding.

The New York State Assembly is currently considering a bill (A.8392) to prohibit colleges and universities in New York State from using State funding to support employees’ participation in academic organizations that have supported boycotts against any nation or its universities. Colleges or universities that violate this act would lose all state funding. This bill (S.6438) has already passed the State Senate, with major support from both parties.

This Bill represents a major threat to academic freedom and constitutes a profound level of political interference into the scholarly lives of our members. Further, the sanctions created by this law would fall primarily on students. If a CUNY college were to be found in violation of this law, it would be subject to losing its State funding. The result would be the cancellation of hundreds of course sections, undermining the ability of students to be in school. Since student financial aid in the form of TAP is a type of state aid, it might also be eliminated for all students.

Justice Brandeis pointed out that the appropriate state response to speech it disagrees with is more speech, not censorship. This bill represents the exact opposite of this dictum. Rather than stating a clear position on the issues involving American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions, this bill goes straight to outlawing a whole class of speech and political engagement. This is exactly the kind of politically motivated bullying by the state that the 1st Amendment was designed to prevent, which raises significant concerns about the constitutionality of this bill.

The members of this union have widely divergent views about the appropriateness of academic boycotts and the PSC has previously taken a position against such boycotts. However, the desire of state officials to dictate what kinds of conferences people can attend and what sort of associations they may join is totally unacceptable. While proponents of the bill maintain that it is not a prohibition on action, but merely the use of state funds, the intentions are clear enough. Faculty who cannot get funding to attend conferences, will decree their participation by economic necessity.

It is imperative that members of the State Assembly hear from you today. The bill is currently being actively opposed by the PSC, NYSUT, and the AAUP. A larger coalition of human rights and social justice organizations is also organizing to oppose the bill. This bill will be going before the Assembly Higher Education Committee on Monday in an "off the floor" meeting. The chair of the Committee is Deborah Glick from Manhattan, who along with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are attempting to move on the bill without hearings or public discussion. It is essential that she hear from as many PSC members as possible in the next few days. In addition, Rhoda Jacobs, whose district includes Brooklyn College is one of the co-sponsors of the bill. She made no effort to reach out to the faculty at Brooklyn College or the PSC before sponsoring this legislation. Written comments can be communicated to them directly through their web sites. 

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