The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
The Orwellian-named “Protect Academic Freedom Act” is not a defense of academic freedom; this is a total attack on academic freedom.
Now, you might think that it’s purely a symbolic law because no American college would ever endorse an academic boycott of Israel, and it doesn’t even apply to colleges that are institutional members of the American Studies Association (the wording requires that the organization be “significantly funded” by the institution, which the ASA and other associations clearly are not). Still, even if the proposed law was purely symbolic, it would deserve condemnation for the evil symbolism of allowing the government to dictate the policies of colleges with regard to global injustices.
But, in reality, the amendment would have a very real impact beyond mere symbolism. The proposed legislation would cut off federal funds under the Higher Education Act to all universities unless they violate the First Amendment by cutting off funding to student groups that support a boycott of Israel.
That’s because the proposed amendment would apply not just to the college itself joining a boycott of Israel, but also if “any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement” supporting an academic boycott of Israel. So, what is an organization significantly funded by the institution? Well, registered student organizations receiving student fees are the clearest example of an organization funded by a university.
This proposed law would mean that if a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a registered student group getting most or all of its funding from the university’s student fees, then the entire university would lose federal funding under the Higher Education Act if that student group makes any kind of statement supporting an academic boycott. The only way to avoid these restrictions would be for all colleges in America to rescind any funding for any student organization that expresses support for an academic boycott of Israel, an act that would clearly violate the First Amendment at public colleges. If an academic department passed such a resolution, the college would be obligated to shut down the entire department in order to avoid the cut off in federal money.
The amendment is so broad that it would not just ban expressing support for an academic boycott, but any college putting limits on exchanges with Israeli institutions. If a university in any way restricts a student exchange anywhere in Israel (say, due to fear of terrorist attacks by Palestinians), it would violate this amendment. (Ironically, if the State of Israel is defined to include the occupied territories, then any college that rejects an exchange with a Palestinian university because of safety concerns or due to the travel restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities, would also be in violation of these rules and have all federal funding cut.)