Assembly Withdraws Bill to Limit Anti-Israel Boycotts
By ARIEL KAMINER
February 4, 2014
Legislation intended to limit academic groups’ protests against Israel was abruptly withdrawn from consideration by the New York State Assembly after a chorus of educators and legal groups denounced it as a bold assault on academic freedom.
After a similar bill sailed through the State Senate last week, the legislation, sponsored by the New York State Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, was headed for a vote in the Assembly on Monday. But Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a co-sponsor of the bill and the chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said she removed it from the committee’s consideration because she felt that “we needed to take a longer look.”
Extolling the virtues of global education “that is not bound by borders,” the bill would prohibit colleges from directing any state aid toward groups that initiate boycotts of other countries. But not all other countries: The language of the bill mentions only those “that host higher education institutions chartered by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York.”
There are four such countries: Lebanon, the Czech Republic and Hungary, none of which are currently the target of major academic boycotts, and Israel, against which two professors’ organizations recently passed boycotts that attracted immediate international debate.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is revising the bill.
NATHANIEL BROOKS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Under the proposed legislation, if any college directed state funds toward the activities of such groups — by paying for annual membership fees, for example, or covering travel costs to a convention — that college would lose all state aid for a full year.
Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, called the legislation “an outrage and unconstitutional.”
She added, “Political boycotts, and resolutions in support of them, are unquestionably protected by the First Amendment, and the state can’t deny funding in order to suppress speech.”
The boycotts against Israel, by the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies, were a protest against that country’s policies toward Palestinians. Many educational leaders condemned those protests as assaults on academic freedom. But some of those same leaders, and a number of professors’ organizations, have condemned the anti-boycott legislation as an even greater assault.
A spokesman for New York University, John Beckman, issued a statement saying, “N.Y.U. does not believe that the remedy for an ill-conceived vote against Israeli academics and academic institutions should be for the government to withhold funds in ways that would themselves appear to contradict the tenets of academic freedom.”
The general counsel for the City University of New York, Frederick P. Shaffer, warned in a statement that the legislation “creates a dangerous precedent of legislative intrusion into the decisions of higher education institutions concerning academic matters.”
The State University of New York condemned the bill, as did a group of dozens of Columbia University professors, the National Lawyers Guild, the New York State United Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, the New York Civil Liberties Union, various Jewish and Palestinian groups and the unions representing the faculty at both SUNY and CUNY.
The amounts affected would not be large. Annual institutional membership in the American Studies Association is $170, a sum that could presumably be raised without resorting to the use of state finances. In condemning the legislation, CUNY paused to dismiss it as “largely ineffectual.”
Michael Whyland, Speaker Silver’s press secretary, said that after clarifying the penalties the bill proposes, Mr. Silver would reintroduce it. “The core of the issue is, these expenses are going to be deemed unreimbursable,” he said. “We don’t intend to defund a university. That’s what some of the criticism has been. That’s not the intent. Basically it’s more of a stand against associations that participate in these kinds of boycotts.”
Assemblywoman Glick, saying “the argument around academic freedom is a serious one,” expressed the hope that some modification could produce a bill that would “address concerns on both sides.”
Ms. LaHood, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, rejected that prospect. “They can’t improve the bill,” she said. “New Yorkers won’t accept any infringement on our free speech.” If the legislation goes forward, she said, her group intends to challenge its legality.