Case of Prof. Al-Arian
Copyright 2002-2004, 2006 by Ronald B. Standler
Prof. Sami Al-Arian, a tenured associate professor of computer science
and computer engineering at the University of South Florida (USF) in
Tampa, had his employment terminated.
The reasons for his dismissal appear to be largely his
pro-palestinian political opinions and alleged fundraising
for alleged terrorist organizations.
Because I am a former professor and currently an attorney in Massachusetts
who specializes in higher-education law (e.g., see my
Academic Freedom in the USA, which I first posted in October 1999),
several people have asked my opinion about Prof. Al-Arian's case.
This essay has a somewhat inconsistent tone, because this essay was begun in
August 2002 as a defense of Prof. Al-Arian's right to express
unpopular political opinions that irritated administrators at USF,
but later (after 20 Feb 2003) this essay was revised to
recognize very grave criminal allegations against Al-Arian,
which, if true, would easily justify terminating his employment and
confining him to prison. As I say in the Conclusion
to this essay, one of the big problems in this case has been USF's
inconsistent, and often inappropriate, expressions of why
USF's managers wanted to terminate Prof. Al-Arian's employment.
I suggest the following sources for a reader who is interested in
determining the facts about this highly controversial case:
- The USF website.
- The campus newspaper,
has good coverage of this situation.
The two major newspapers near USF,
Tampa Tribune and
St. Petersburg Times,
have more detailed coverage than the national media, such as
- The American Association of University Professors
is a professional society of professors in the USA, and the principal
organization in the USA that is concerned with academic freedom.
- The United Faculty of Florida (UFF),
the labor union that represents professors at USF, has posted an
webpage on Al-Arian.
Predictably, this labor union characterizes the issues as
"Professor Al-Arian's due process and academic freedom and
tenure rights." They have webpages with many links.
(I am personally opposed to labor unions representing professors.
In contrast to the prevailing view in the USA, I prefer to view
faculty as management who is at the core of the university,
with the administration simply implementing decisions made by the faculty.
Moreover, I believe it is unprofessional for creative
intellectuals who are engaged in autonomous scholarly research
to be represented by a labor union, as if these intellectuals were manual laborers.
I supply a link to the UFF webpage only because they are a source
of information, not because I agree with their position.
In Oct 2002, I wrote:
"It will be interesting to see if this union actually does anything
significant to support Prof. Al-Arian, such as paying his attorney's fees."
In 2006, the answer was that UFF had none nothing significant to support Al-Arian.
- A private website
sympathetic to Prof. Al-Arian contains a collection of his statements,
his biography, and many links to newspaper articles about his case.
In August 2002, I could not find any author mentioned at this website, but
this website is registered to an entity in Tampa, Florida and
the technical contact is Prof. Al-Arian himself,
so this is apparently his personal website.
Another advocacy website for Al-Arian,
this one created in June 2003, after his arrest. The domain name is registered to
Nahla Al-Arain of Tampa, Florida. Nahla is the wife of ex-Prof. Sami Al-Arian.
- Prof. Bernard Hibbits at the University of Pittsburgh College of Law supervises
a website for current legal news, with links to primary sources.
Here are links to some of their articles about Al-Arian:
- 20 Feb 2003 background
- 7 Dec 2005 verdict
- 1 May 2006 sentencing
Prof. Al-Arian was put on a paid leave of absence by USF for
two years, from
7 Aug 1996 to August 1998, while there was a federal
investigation for international terrorism
of a think tank that was founded by Prof. Al-Arian.
Prof. Al-Arian appeared on the 26 Sep 2001 The O'Reilly Factor,
a nationwide television program distributed by the Fox News Channel.
(Partial transcript available
(I would generally characterize O'Reilly's show as:
"arrogant, former high-school teacher with conservative views
rudely interrogates and berates guests for amusement of
television audience.") As a result of Prof. Al-Arian's exposure
on that television program, USF received hundreds of "telephone calls and
e-mail from people who are concerned about the possibility of
terrorist activity at USF."*
There was also a death threat against Prof. Al-Arian.
Allegedly as a result of that threat, the president of
USF placed Prof. Al-Arian on paid leave beginning 27 Sep 2001
and prohibited him from entering the USF campus.
Later, there were approximately ten additional death threats
against Prof. Al-Arian and others at USF.
- * Judy Genshaft, President of USF, in her Report to
the Board of Trustees of USF, 28 Sep 2001.
The USF Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting on
19 Dec 2001, at which the Board voted 12 to 1 that the
President of USF terminate Prof. Al-Arian's employment
"as quickly as University processes will allow".
Fourteen months later (!) Prof. Al-Arian was still employed by USF.
On 21 Aug 2002,
the USF filed a Complaint in Florida state court
that requested declaratory judgment, i.e.,
asked the judge to decide if USF could terminate Prof. Al-Arian's
employment without violating his rights.
Prof. Al-Arian's attorney filed a motion
to move the case to the U.S. District Court, because
academic freedom and freedom of speech are properly federal issues.
The motion was granted.
Prof. Al-Arian's attorney then filed a motion in federal court to
dismiss the complaint, because an administrative grievance process
and then arbitration was specified in the collective bargaining agreement
between USF and the labor union that represents the faculty.
The judge dismissed USF's complaint on 16 Dec 2002.
The labor union that represents the faculty at USF filed a grievance
on behalf of Prof. Al-Arian
and a first hearing was held at USF on 27 January 2003.
In mid-February 2003, a committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a
which reviewed the facts and was very critical of USF. At the end of the AAUP Report is a brief
reply by USF.
Since 1994, there had been allegations that Prof. Al-Arian supported the
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization that is responsible for
more than 100 deaths in Israel, amongst other horrible activities.
On 20 Feb 2003, Prof. Al-Arian
was arrested by the FBI after he was indicted by a federal grand jury
as the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the USA.
This was the first time that Al-Arian had been arrested for any terrorist
activity, despite allegations and rumors of his involvement with terrorists
that had circulated for more than seven years.
The USF terminated Prof. Al-Arian's employment on 26 Feb 2003,
17 months after he appeared on O'Reilly's television show and
14 months after USF's Board of Trustees voted to terminate
Al-Arian's employment. A copy of the
of Termination is posted at the USF website.
It appears that there may be two violations of due process:
- Faculty committees at USF did not revoke
Prof. Al-Arian's tenure prior to the decision of the president of
USF, Judy Genshaft, to terminate Prof. Al-Arian's employment.
- Genshaft did not wait for a jury to decide the criminal
charges against Prof. Al-Arian, she simply decided that the
contents of the indictment were all true.
At their annual meeting in June 2003, the
American Association of University Professors (AAUP) passed a Resolution that
formally "condemned" USF for dismissing Al-Arian.
AAUP Press Release that
explains their Resolution.
of the 19 Dec 2001 emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees
(where the Board voted 12 to 1 that the President of USF terminate
Prof. Al-Arian's employment) are amazingly
candid about the reasons for the termination of Prof. Al-Arian:
many of their reasons appear to be pretexual.
- Dean Louis-Vega complains about "having an
instructor on paid leave, thus diverting funds
that might be used to support other faculty, ...."
Prof. Al-Arian was put on paid leave by USF administrators.
Prof. Al-Arian did not place himself on
paid leave, so it is not appropriate for USF administrators
to blame Prof. Al-Arian for being on paid leave.
- On the advice of attorney Gonzalez, USF did not attack
Prof. Al-Arian directly for the content of his speech.
Instead, the USF administration raised concerns
about security issues (e.g., "safe and orderly environment")
at the USF, the conclusion being that
USF would be a safer place without Prof. Al-Arian.
USF completely ignored the fact that the real problem is the
terrorists who made death threats against Prof. Al-Arian
and others at USF.
Terminating Prof. Al-Arian's employment because of fears
about safety on the USF campus seems to be an instance of
something not permitted by the First Amendment to the
- Judy Genshaft, the president of USF, complained that a
"disproportionate amount of her time and energy have been spent
on dealing with the issue of Al-Arian's relationship with this campus."
This statement then leads to Prof. Al-Arian being characterized as
"disruptive", which is one of the talismanic words in
U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the dismissal
of a government employee for expressing political opinions.
- Attorney Gonzalez is on record as saying that the USF Police
"cannot guarantee the safety of students and faculty if
Al-Arian were to return to campus." Does that statement imply
that the Police will guarantee the safety of all students
and faculty as long as Prof. Al-Arian remains off campus?
Obviously not. So the statement is meaningless, but
it contributes to an impression that Prof. Al-Arian is dangerous.
On 8 June 2002, the AAUP issued an
on their investigation of USF's handling of Prof. Al-Arian.
The possibility that the AAUP might censure the USF administration
may have caused USF to re-examine their reasons to terminate Al-Arian.
On 21 August 2002,
USF added the new allegation that Prof. Al-Arian
had engaged in "illegal or improper activities",*
thus attacking him both for the content of his speech
and his conduct off campus.
Furthermore, USF declared: "Dr. Al-Arian remains under
active criminal investigation for alleged ties to terrorist activities."*
Those are really inflammatory statements, in defiance of the classic
presumption of innocence until guilt is proven in a criminal court.
- * Judy Genshaft, President of USF,
Statement linked at USF Internet homepage,
21 Aug 2002.
My opinion is that USF's December 2001 reasons for terminating
Prof. Al-Arian's employment are obviously contrived and
only the "disruption" reason had a chance of being a legally
sufficient reason. The August 2002 reason
(i.e., that Prof. Al-Arian has committed crimes by supporting terrorists)
is a good reason to end his employment, but only
if there is adequate evidence to prove those alleged crimes
in court. I am suspicious of why USF waited until August 2002
to change their reasons for termination of Prof. Al-Arian's
employment, particularly when all of USF's reasons
appear to be concocted by an attorney.
The obvious explanation is that Prof. Al-Arian's political opinions
have outraged the public and adversely affected both (1) gifts from
alumni and (2) recruiting of faculty and students.
(These reasons are mentioned incidentally in the Minutes of the
19 Dec 2001 emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees.)
Because public reaction to Prof. Al-Arian political opinions has
caused difficulties for the USF administration,
USF appears to be searching for some excuse to retaliate
by terminating his employment.
An article by Anita Kumar, "Threats at USF More Ugly Than Deadly,"
(St. Petersburg Times, 28 July 2002)
suggests that the death threats that allegedly caused USF to
suspend Prof. Al-Arian in Sep 2002 were angry outbursts,
not serious threats. If that newspaper article is correct, then
the death threats were just a pretext by USF to remove a professor
who was a political embarrassment to USF. One wonders why USF wasted
US$ 67,526 paying Prof. Al-Arian not to work during
the 2001-02 academic year.
It would have been less expensive to hire a full-time bodyguard
to protect Prof. Al-Arian when he was on campus.
The Complaint filed in state court by USF in August 2002 contains
the names of five attorneys who represent USF in this case,
including two from a law firm in Ft. Lauderdale, which is
300 km from Tampa where USF is located.
In contrast, Prof. Al-Arian is represented by a local two-man law firm
in Tampa. One gets the impression that USF is willing to spend many
tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees to get rid of
Judy Genshaft's public statement of the reasons for the termination
of Prof. Al-Arian's employment on 26 Feb 2003 includes:
- Dr. Al-Arian has repeatedly abused his position at the university.
He has misused the university's name, reputation, resources and
personnel. .... ... Dr. Al-Arian's statements
about his activities have been false and misleading, and he has
failed to meet our high professional standards.
His use of this educational institution for improper, non-educational
purposes, will not be tolerated. No longer will he be able to hide
behind the shield of academic freedom.
The termination of employment letter sent to Prof. Al-Arian is remarkable:
If I were more familiar with the facts of this case, I am sure I could
find additional pretexual excuses from USF to terminate Al-Arian's employment.
The administration of USF appears to be bungling and unable to make a
decision. The USF administration is also unable to decide exactly why
Al-Arian's employment should be terminated:
the reasons in December 2001 are different from those
in February 2003, although Al-Arian has consistently been on paid
leave between those two dates.
- About half of that letter refers to the federal indictment.
An indictment contains only allegations by prosecutors,
not facts that have been proven in court.
Prof. Al-Arian had been employed by USF continuously since 1986,
and it is astounding that in those 16 years,
USF apparent never observed any facts that it could cite in its
- Furthermore, pages 2 and 4 of the termination letter mentions that Al-Arian
made a false statement on his application for U.S. Citizenship.
That application was denied on 26 Feb 1996, because Al-Arian
had voted in 1994 without being a citizen.
If citizenship in the USA was really important to USF,
why did they hire Al-Arian in 1986?
There were plenty of U.S. citizens, and native speakers of English,
with an earned Ph.D. in computer science or electrical engineering.
And if the false statement on his citizenship application was important
to USF, why did USF wait 7 years to terminate Al-Arian's employment?
While I have read some documents about this case
and I have read many articles by journalists in Tampa and St. Petersburg,
I am certain that I do not understand all of the relevant facts of this case.
I do understand enough, however, to say with confidence that this case
is not about "academic freedom".
Prof. Al-Arian is a professor of computer science, with claimed expertise in
computer architecture, fault tolerance, design and testing of computer systems,
and VLSI testing. His speech that is at the center of this controversy
has nothing to do with either computers or engineering,
it is purely political speech.
Furthermore, USF has not criticized either Prof. Al-Arian's
teaching or research.
Therefore, I characterized the issue in the year 2002
as whether an employee of a state university can express political opinions
that the leaders of the state government (or the university administration)
find offensive. After 20 February 2003,
the issue is more complicated and involves allegations of criminal conduct.
But characterizing the issue as political speech,
not "academic freedom",
does not hand victory to USF. In an egalitarian society, such as the USA,
there are stronger reasons for protecting the right to express unpopular
political opinions, than there are to create special rights for professors
under the name of "academic freedom".
On the other hand, giving financial aid to terrorists
is not protected under "freedom of speech".
But one can not ignore Prof. Al-Arian's endorsement of the Palestinian
cause, since his publicly stated political views are what
caused this whole affair. For the record,
I say I am personally appalled that Palestinian terrorists have murdered
in Israel from 27 September 2000 to 1 November 2004,
while the world did nothing effective to stop this terrorism.
Nonetheless, whether Prof. Al-Arian's personal political opinions
(or anyone else's political opinions) are correct should not be the issue here.
Political opinions can not be proven correct the way facts can be
proven or disproven.
I have discussed the law in the USA on this subject in
Freedom of Speech in USA for Professors and Other Government Employees,
which I wrote in April 2000.
My essay, Value of Dissent,
expresses my dismay in November 2001 at
"the pernicious climate in which there is
overwhelming consensus, and dissent is seen as either unpatriotic
or disloyal." I could just as easily condemn the climate
in which an alleged increase in security is used to justify
suppression of civil liberties and termination of employment.
Betty Castor's Campaign
Aside from effects on Al-Arian personally, and effects on USF, there is
another way that this episode may have harmed society.
Ms. Betty Castor was president of USF during 1996-98, when Prof. Al-Arian
was suspended with pay, while the FBI investigated Al-Arian.
In the 2004 election for U.S. Senator from Florida, Betty Castor
was the Democratic party's candidate. Her opponent repeatedly charged
that Castor was a weak leader and soft on terrorism, because she did
not fire Prof. Al-Arian. Castor narrowly lost the election and conventional
analysis blamed her loss on her opponent's advertisements featuring
During this political campaign, Al-Arian was confined to a federal
prison, while awaiting his trial on criminal charges.
The political adverts were so inflammatory that the federal judge on 13 Nov 2004
granted Al-Arian's motion for a three-month postponement of his trial,
in part because of the pretrial publicity during the political campaign.
It is regrettable that respect for tenured professors, respect for
due process, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty
in a court were all squashed in political adverts that grossly oversimplified
As noted above, Al-Arian was arrested on 20 Feb 2003.
He was confined to a federal prison before his trial began.
On 6 June 2005, federal prosecutors began a mind-numbing trial of a group
of four defendants, including Al-Arian. The complex, six-month trial presented evidence
that had been collected over a ten-year period from 1993 to 2003.
On 6 Dec 2005, after deliberating for 13 days, the jury found Al-Arian not guilty on
eight counts, but the jury was unable to reach a decision on the remaining nine counts.
Federal prosecutors decided to retry Al-Arian on the remaining nine counts.
However, in mid-April 2006, Al-Arian reached a plea agreement that ended the legal proceedings.
Al-Arian pled guilty to conspiring to assist the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization.
In return for his guilty plea,
the government would deport Al-Arian to an unspecified country and drop the remaining eight counts
of the indictment. Al-Arian's attorney hoped that the judge would sentence Al-Arian to
the 38 months of time served since his February 2003 arrest.
Instead, at the sentencing on 1 May 2006, the trial judge gave Al-Arian the maximum allowed
sentence of 57 months, which means that Al-Arian would serve another 19 months in prison,
before being deported. At the sentencing, the trial judge made some blistering
remarks about Al-Arian. Because the jury had failed to find Al-Arian
guilty and some observers believe that the prosecution of Al-Arian was politically motivated, I
have posted a copy of the judge's remarks at my website, to make the remarks easily available.
The 1 May 2006 sentencing was ignored by journalists nationwide, as journalists focused on
a national day of protest demonstrations by illegal immigrants over proposed immigration reform
legislation. The lack of coverage given to the sentencing of Al-Arian was in sharp contrast to the
prominent national coverage given to the interview with Bill O'Reilly on 26 Sep 2001
and in contrast to the national coverage given to the arrest of Al-Arian on 20 Feb 2003.
In my opinion, the Al-Arian case was never satisfactorily concluded:
- Journalists and politicians apparently never raised the issue of whether a state
university should hire a non-citizen (e.g., Al-Arian) when there are many qualified
U.S. citizens to fill a position.
- During 2001-2002, USF administrators seemed to want to end Al-Arian's employment because Al-Arian
was unpopular with some journalists, taxpayers, and politicians which is an
unacceptably bad reason.
- USF president, Judy Genshaft, terminated Al-Arian's tenure and employment without any
review or votes by faculty committees, which was a due process violation. Although a
grievance was filed at USF in January 2003, the grievance was made moot by the
government's decision in 2006 to deport Al-Arian. The USF administration stopped
talking publicly about Al-Arian after terminating his employment in Feb 2003.
This silence by USF helped shape public opinion by focusing on the criminal trial
and ignoring the due process violations by USF.
- The jurors were apparently overwhelmed by a large amount of evidence presented by the government
during a mind-numbing, six-month trial. For that reason, the jury may have reached the wrong result.
- It is arguable that Al-Arian pled guilty in April 2006, not because he believed he was guilty,
but to end the suffering of his family during more than three years of incarceration in
federal prison and the agony of a second trial.
His supporters correctly note that a jury never found Al-Arian guilty of anything.
There are two issues in this case: (a) the alleged misconduct of Prof. Al-Arian
and (b) the bumbling, inconsistent positions taken by USF administrators,
as well as their excessive delay in resolving the alleged problem(s) posed by
The real tragedy in the case of Prof. Al-Arian is that many professors
and advocates of freedom of speech defended Al-Arian in the years 2001 and 2002
out of idealism, a strong belief in due process, or a belief that the
faculty (not the President, not the Board of Trustees) should make the initial
decisions on tenure and employment in a university.
It is natural that some of these idealists will feel betrayed by Al-Arian,
and they will become more cynical, more skeptical, and more hesitant to get
involved when future freedom of speech issues arise.
This document is at
first posted 23 Aug 2002, revised 21 May 2006
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