Nearly 100 Columbia faculty members signed a letter to the New York State Assembly opposing a hotly debated bill that would cut state funding to academic institutions that have connections to groups that boycott Israel.
A version of the bill passed 56-4 in the New York State Senate on Jan. 28, but was pulled from the assembly on Feb. 4 after opposition from education groups like the New York State United Teachers union. A rewritten bill introduced Feb. 12 more specifically prohibited state funds from being used to support organizations that boycott foreign educational institutions, which may still be put up for another vote in the future.
“These bills aim to punish political speech and association of academics generally,” the faculty letter said. “Both of these aims violate well-settled law protecting First Amendment rights.”
The bill is partly in response to the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli educational institutions in December. A statement from the ASA called the bill “a direct attack on academic freedom.”
“I am glad to join those colleagues who are protesting the bill because it aims to curtail the ability of academics to speak out on matters of public concern,” Marianne Hirsch, professor of comparative literature and gender studies, said. “It represents a serious assault on academic freedom.”
“The state should not infringe on the rights of associations, including academic organizations, to express their political views, however distasteful those views might be to some legislators or even to individual members of the organization,” Elizabeth Blackmar, a history professor and one of the signees, said. “This principle does not depend on the specific political question. It is a foundation for any robust and meaningful political debate.”
Professors said that opposing the bill was a matter of basic rights, not a political statement.
“Some of the signatories to this letter endorse the principles underlying the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, others do not,” Katherine Franke, a professor at the Law School, said.
“Regardless of whether one supports that cause to which this particular boycott is responding. We all firmly believe that academics have a right to express their political views through a wide range of protected speech, including boycotts,” Franke said.
State Sen. Bill Perkins, who represents parts of Columbia’s Morningside campus and Harlem, was one of the four legislators who voted against the bill in January. He said he recognized the political implications behind the bill.
“This [opposing the bill] might be offensive to folks because of their sense of association with Israel,” Perkins said. “Which is not different from mine I might add.”
He added that he did not support boycotts, and that he opposed the bill for ideological reasons.
“It’s not a question of being agreeable or disagreeable with the message,” Perkins said. “This is the United States of America, and these types of bills are slippery slopes that can begin to put a chilling effect on the freedom of speech.”
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who also represents parts of Morningside Heights and Manhattanville, did not respond to requests for comment.
Christian Zhang contributed reporting.