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 essay on 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:
  1. The USF website.

  2. The campus newspaper, USF Oracle, 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 CNN.

  3. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is a professional society of professors in the USA, and the principal organization in the USA that is concerned with academic freedom.

  4. 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. )

  5. 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.

  6. 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:
    1. 20 Feb 2003 background
    2. 7 Dec 2005 verdict
    3. 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 here.) (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 Report, 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 Notice of Termination is posted at the USF website. It appears that there may be two violations of due process:
  1. 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.
  2. 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. Read the AAUP Resolution and the AAUP Press Release that explains their Resolution.

USF's position

The Minutes 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. For example:
On 8 June 2002, the AAUP issued an Interim Statement 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 Prof. Al-Arian.

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.

Academic Freedom?

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.

Political Speech

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 1032 people 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 my essay, 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 Al-Arian.

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 complex issues.


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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 Prof. Al-Arian.

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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