Anti-Academic Freedom Bill in Illinois Senate
By John K. Wilson
After the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed an academic boycott of Israel last December, legislators responded by trying to punish universities. In Illinois, state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D, Chicago) introduced SB3071, which uses similar language to a bill passed by the New York State Senate earlier this year. Similar threats to academic freedom have been proposed in Maryland and in the US Congress.
Howard Bunsis, Chair of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress, warned that "The 'Protect Academic Freedom Act,' jointly filed by House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R., Ill.) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D., Ill.) could serve as a deterrent to other groups considering Israeli boycotts. It would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 'to prohibit an institution that participates in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars from being eligible' to receive federal funds, according to text of the legislation."
Although the AAUP opposes academic boycotts, the national AAUP spoke out against these proposed laws, noting that "it would impose a political litmus test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel."
The Illinois bill is so badly written that the intended target of it, groups who call for a boycott of Israel, are clearly exempt under the law's provision when a boycott is for "the purpose of protesting unlawful discriminatory practices," which the Israel boycotts obviously fall under.
But the bill has a very broad application. It covers any "resolution" supporting a boycott, even if there is no action, and even if it is only support for an economic boycott and not an academic boycott. It also applies to a boycott of any colleges in America, since it covers any country in the OECD. So, the law might apply to the AAUP, since its censure list is, arguably, a form of boycott of a college. It could also apply to any academic organization that urges a boycott of diploma mills, since these are higher education institutions. The bill is so severe that if the University of Illinois accidentally funded a scholar's travel to the AAUP conference in June 2014, the University of Illinois could instantly lose $663.5 million in state funding and go bankrupt.
The bill also sets no time limits on these resolutions. The standard is simply "has issued a public resolution." In fact, if a scholarly organization during World War II passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Nazi universities, then the Illinois bill would permanently prohibit funding of travel to that group's events.
And since no one knows which organization "has issued a public resolution" for a boycott at any point in its history, all public universities in Illinois would have to respond to this law by banning state funds for any scholarly groups (including any groups meeting on Illinois campuses) or for any travel to conferences of any kind.
Of course, even if the proposed Illinois law had not been incompetently drafted, and actually had targeted critics of Israel as legislators apparently intended, it would remain an indefensible attack on academic freedom.
As the AAUP noted in a statement about these bills, "Legislative interference in academic decision-making and with the freedom of scholars to associate and exchange views with their peers is even more dangerous than the academic boycotts this legislation is intended to oppose. That is because this legislation undermines constitutionally protected academic speech and debate in order to promote a particular viewpoint."
Legislators have no absolutely business attempting to ban incidental state funds for anyone in order to silence freedom of speech. It is an assault on the First Amendment, and contrary to the fundamental principles of liberty.
The AAUP declared, "Legislative interference in academic decision-making and with the freedom of scholars to associate and exchange views with their peers is even more dangerous than the academic boycotts this legislation is intended to oppose. That is because this legislation undermines constitutionally protected academic speech and debate in order to promote a particular viewpoint. If enacted, such legislation will set a deplorable precedent for future legislation that might further reduce academic speech."