Rethinking Academic Boycotts

This is a guest post by Marjorie Heins, a contributor to the newest issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom. Professor Heins teaches “Censorship in American Culture and Law” at New York University and is a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

In 2005, a coalition of Palestinian organizations issued a call for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” against Israel. To the extent this included a call to boycott academic institutions, the AAUP’s Committee A soon announced its opposition. In a 2006 report, Committee A acknowledged the AAUP’s past support for anti-apartheid divestment campaigns, but said that unlike general economic boycotts, which may indirectly affect academia, academic boycotts “strike directly at the free exchange of ideas.”

My article in the current issue of the online Journal of Academic Freedom, “Rethinking Academic Boycotts,” points out that politically inspired boycotts—including academic boycotts—are an important form of free speech. Academic boycotts target institutions that the protesters believe are engaged in, or complicit with, inhumane acts by their government. But boycotts can also threaten free speech, and academic boycotts are a prime example. They aim at the resources needed for professors to teach, research, and write, to publish, to attend international conferences, and to be invited as visitors or lecturers on campuses abroad. The effect is to shrink academic freedom not only at the targeted institutions but throughout the world.

How to balance the competing free-speech interests? The fact that politically inspired boycotts—including academic boycotts—are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment does not necessarily mean they are a good idea.

This point is particularly compelling given the history of academic freedom in the United States. As Hilary Rose, one contributor to a 2006 issue of Academe devoted to the boycott issue, acknowledged, “the American experience of the cold war and McCarthyism as a period when academic freedom and free speech suffered has properly affected the AAUP’s thinking.” My recent book, Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge, chronicles the attacks on teachers and professors in this era, and the Supreme Court’s initially weak response. There are thus good historical reasons not to interfere with academic freedom.

It’s possible, of course, that circumstances could develop that would strengthen the argument for an academic boycott. A state-mandated purge of all campus dissenters, for example, or of all professors who are not orthodox Jews, would deprive an institution of much of its claim to be a true university committed to academic freedom. Excluding such a mock or shadow university from the international community of scholars would do little harm to academic freedom; the harm would already have been done. But unless and until such total silencing arises on Israeli campuses, there is much to be said for adhering to Committee A’s rejection of academic boycotts in favor of broader divestment strategies. Although a general economic boycott may also impact academic freedom, the intent and message are very different. And since much of a boycott or divestment campaign is about the message, this distinction is important.

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