UC-Santa Barbara under FIRE

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education demands
UCSB cease investigation of sociology professor

Date: June 18, 2009

Contact: cdaf.ucsb@gmail.com

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – FIRE – a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that works to protect student and faculty rights at college campuses nationwide – has demanded that the University of California at Santa Barbara cease its investigation of sociology professor William I. Robinson.

In a June 10 letter to Chancellor Henry Yang, FIRE said the Robinson case constitutes a “serious threat” to the rights of every faculty member at UCSB.

“Faculty members report a chilling effect is being felt across the campus, and every day that the investigation continues deepens the violation of their academic freedom and constitutional rights,” reads the letter, written by FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program director, Adam Kissel. “I urge you to protect UCSB from further embarrassment and restore freedom of expression to your campus by immediately calling an end to the investigation.”

The Academic Senate decided to investigate Robinson in March to determine if he violated the Faculty Code of Conduct by introducing materials critical of Israeli state policies in a class on global affairs last January.

The materials included a photo essay that Robinson forwarded to students from the Internet juxtaposing images of Israeli abuse against Palestinians with Nazi abuses during the holocaust. Two students took offense and withdrew from the course, prompting pro-Israel groups to demand that the university censor the professor.

The students filed complaints with the Senate Charges Committee, which, in turn, compiled a “summary of allegations” that accuses Robinson of sending a “highly partisan” e-mail with “lurid photographs” to students. The committee said the e-mail was unexpected, without educational content, and apparently unrelated to the course.

But FIRE says those charges “make a mockery” of the First Amendment and academic freedom.

“We urge UCSB to show the courage necessary to admit its error,” reads the letter. “Please spare the university the deep embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights and the California Constitution, by which it is legally and morally bound. While we hope this situation can be resolved amicably and swiftly, we are committed to using all of our resources to see this situation through to a just and moral conclusion.”

FIRE sent its letter directly to the chancellor to encourage him to use his authority to end the investigation, said Kissel in an interview.

“Yang has said he doesn’t want to pre-judge the investigation by intervening in the Senate before the case formally arrives on his desk,” Kissel said. “But Yang needs to understand that this investigation, in and of itself, is a violation of the professor’s academic rights and freedom of speech. Each day it continues is a further violation with chilling effects on campus.”

Kissel said it’s the chancellor’s moral and legal duty to intervene.

“He can’t sit back and wait while the professor is dragged through this process for five to six months or more,” Kissel said.

FIRE, which formed in 1999, normally gives a university two or three weeks to respond when the organization intervenes to protect an individual’s rights.

“We give them a chance to reverse course and do the right thing, and in most cases, that’s what ends up happening,” Kissel said. “If not, then we publicize the story through our extensive media network to raise awareness about the abuse taking place. In cases where that doesn’t work, we can go further and use our legal network to assist in litigation.”

Kissel said its media campaigns are usually very effective, because FIRE is an entirely nonpartisan organization that strictly defends free speech and individual rights. That separates FIRE from the partisan political and ideological wrangling that surrounds many rights cases.

“It’s easy for university administrators to ignore news from either side because the issue is so highly charged, but our approach is very different,” Kissel said. “We don’t take a position on whether we agree or disagree with an individual, or whether a professor did or didn’t make a good choice pedagogically. We stand behind the individual’s rights and help the media and the public to see that as the key issue. That argument is much harder to ignore.”

In the Robinson case, pro-Israel groups have applied immense political pressure on university officials.

But Kissel said the administration needs to focus on free speech and academic freedom.

“It’s important that the administration not be distracted by the outside pressures that kind of led UCSB down this path in the first place,” Kissel said. “If they look at this strictly on the basis of academic freedom principles and freedom of speech, the case is clear.”

FIRE has given Chancellor Yang until June 24 to respond to its letter before mounting a media campaign.

You can view the FIRE letter in its entirety here. To learn more about FIRE, visit their web site at www.thefire.org.

For detailed information about the Robinson case, visit the CDAF Web site at www.sb4af.wordpress.com.

For media inquiries, email cdaf.ucsb@gmail.com.

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