WHEN AN academic group announced it would boycott Israel’s higher-education institutions, the president of the University of Maryland, like dozens of his peers across the country, condemned the move. “A breach of the principle of academic freedom” said Wallace D. Loh in a joint statement with the school’s provost. We completely agree. However, legislation being advanced by state lawmakers to bar participation in the boycott goes too far and constitutes its own insidious assault on academic freedom.
The Maryland General Assembly is considering legislation that would bar public universities from providing funds to academic organizations that support boycotts of Israel. Bills introduced in the House and Senate — similar to measures introduced in New York and Illinois — follow the uproar caused when the American Studies Association in December adopted a resolution for an academic boycott of Israel to protest that country’s treatment of Palestinians. A smaller group, the Association for Asian American Studies, had earlier approved a similar resolution.
As misguided as the boycott is — impeding the free flow of ideas should be antithetical to halls of learning — it is an expression of a belief and those who support it should not be subject to government coercion. Under the bills, sponsored by State Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) and Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), public colleges and universities would be barred from paying membership dues to groups that support the boycott; expenses to attend conferences by the group would also be cut. Violation would result in some loss of state funding.
Academicians, including those who abhor the boycott, are right to be alarmed by this kind of legislation. The American Association of University Professors argue that the measure would impose a political litmus test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel. A letter signed by more than 150 scholars from across the country noted that boycotts are “internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression” and those who support them ought not to be retaliated against. At a hearing this week before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, an official from the American Civil Liberties of Union termed the bill “inimical to democratic principals.”
This bill is ill-advised and should be killed. If it advances out of the General Assembly, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) should veto it.