Trying Terror

The University of South Florida asked a state judge Aug. 21 to determine whether it would violate Sami Al-Arian's First Amendment rights to fire the contentious computer science professor.

Since Al-Arian's Sept. 28 suspension after appearing on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, USF had made clear that it intended to dismiss Al-Arian, a tenured professor with alleged ties to terrorist organizations. Last September, USF placed Al-Arian on paid leave and barred him from campus, alleging that his presence created a security risk.

Facing academic censure from the American Association of University Professors, USF asked Vivian C. Maye, a Hillsborough County circuit judge, for a declaratory judgment that would strengthen its termination of Al-Arian and its defense against censure.

"I think what this lawsuit reflects is respect for Dr. Al-Arian's rights, respect for the court system, respect for (the administration's) obligations to the university," said Bruce Rogow, a First Amendment attorney hired by USF.

In a termination notice included in the lawsuit, USF alleges that Al-Arian:

... Participated in "lawless action ... to accomplish the unlawful aims of the organizations that you joined and/or supported."

... Used USF's name to book an Islamic Concern Project (ICP) event "at which money was raised for causes later associated with terrorist activities."

... "(P)laced Ramadan Abdullah Shallah in the position of Director of Administration of WISE (World and Islam Studies Enterprise), a position he held till his departure to become head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in mid-1995." In addition, the U.S. government seized two WISE bank accounts in Shallah's name in November 1995.

... Wrote a Feb. 1, 1995, letter intended to raise funds for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which on Jan. 22, 1995, had claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in Beit Lid Junction, Israel, killing at least 19 and injuring 61, according to a 1995 article in The New York Times. By 1995, the U.S. government had identified the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a terrorist organization.

The notice also brings up again a speech Al-Arian gave at a 1988 conference in St. Louis. "Death to Israel," Al-Arian said in Arabic. The video clip received considerable play on local and national television.

"There are very powerful groups that will make sure that whoever utters these words will be punished forever," Al-Arian said of his "Death to Israel" comment.

Additionally, on Aug. 20, one day before USF filed suit, the St. Petersburg Times reported that one of Al-Arian's defenders, former CIA counter-terrorism chief and ABC News consultant Vincent Cannistraro, said he believed Al-Arian was one of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's "intellectual organizers."

Cannistraro made the statement during a July 30 deposition in connection with a libel lawsuit filed by purported terrorism expert Steven Emerson against Weekly Planet and its former editor, John Sugg.

The allegation that Al-Arian helped to found the terrorist organization is one of many that have been reported in local and national media as part of the USF professor's continuing trial by public opinion.

The Tampa Tribune, whose reporting Cannistraro called "poor journalism" in his deposition, has led the prosecution with reports alleging Al-Arian's terrorist ties, including one story that relied on anonymous sources said to be "current and former senior Israeli intelligence officials."

But if the Tribune directed the prosecution, the Planet pointed down the road to reasonable doubt, writing a lengthy profile of Al-Arian and his life as well as attempting to punch holes in the Tribune's reporting.

Those reports have fueled a body of public opinion that the Planet is blindly pro-Al-Arian. The failure of the Planet to break the story of Cannistraro's revelation, disclosed at a deposition in its own libel case, would seem to lend credence to that opinion.

Embarrassingly enough, the Planet's news staff only became aware of Cannistraro's allegation via an Aug. 18 e-mail from former federal prosecutor John Loftus to news media that also included The New York Times, Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tribune. The St. Petersburg Times story appeared two days later.

As Al-Arian has done many times prior to USF's filing suit, he denied raising funds for terrorists or helping found the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

At an Aug. 22 press conference, Al-Arian cited immigration judge R. Kevin McHugh's Oct. 27, 2000, ruling in a case that included most of the evidence presented to the public thus far as well as secret evidence yet to be made public. McHugh ruled that he had not been presented with evidence proving that Al-Arian raised money for terrorists or that ICP and WISE were fronts for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent William West testified that the government did not have evidence to suggest that Shallah was linked to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad while he was associated with Al-Arian.

"The only people who don't take no for an answer are rapists," Al-Arian said Aug. 22, emphasizing that he has been exonerated of the charges USF has alleged.

USF's lawsuit raises the stakes in what is already a high-profile case. The university claims to have recently classified documents that link Al-Arian to terrorist organizations. USF also plans to depose Al-Arian, who could be questioned under oath about his alleged ties to terrorists.

Al-Arian's attorney, Robert McKee, would not say whether the professor would assert a constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. His deposition in the lawsuit could be used against him as part of an ongoing federal criminal investigation.

The university's lawsuit is the most recent step in removing the "cancer," as USF Board of Trustees Chairman Dick Beard has called Al-Arian, from a research institution whose international reputation had until Sept. 28 been on the rise.

In taking Al-Arian to court, the university does not have the support of its faculty. Roy Weatherford, the president of the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida who urged Al-Arian to join after his appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, has been and remains critical of a possible firing.

Suing the professor, Weatherford believes, is a "creative" way for USF to sidestep the faculty union contract, which protects tenured professors at USF. The lawsuit also establishes an undesirable precedent, Weatherford said.

"If the university in the future decides that it would like to harass and bankrupt a professor, what is to stop them from deciding to sue?" Weatherford said at Al-Arian's Aug. 22 press conference. "This could be a terrible precedent with serious, chilling effects on academic freedom at our university."

McKee, Al-Arian's attorney, announced his intention to move the lawsuit to federal court and subsequently motioned for dismissal. Al-Arian, asked if he can pay for what could be a lengthy court battle, shook his head. "I don't know," he said.

It's unclear whether union insurance will cover Al-Arian's legal fees, since he joined after his appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. The faculty union requires professors to be members for 60 days prior to any event that would cause legal action.

According to Weatherford, taking the issue from the campus to the courthouse has one benefit. It establishes the case as one of academic freedom rather than campus security.

In fact, USF President Judy Genshaft emphasized that at her Aug. 21 press conference, though she and Weatherford would disagree on the merits of academic freedom in this particular case.

"Academic freedom exists to promote professors' and students' search for knowledge and understanding, not to be a shield for illegal or improper activities," Genshaft said.

Genshaft believes Al-Arian should not be allowed to hide alleged terrorist ties behind fortified walls of academic freedom. But Al-Arian maintains he has nothing to hide in USF's ivory towers. His persecution is a product of post-Sept. 11 fervor, he said.

"I'm a minority. I'm an Arab. I'm a Palestinian. I'm a Muslim," said Al-Arian. "That's not a popular thing to be these days."

Contact Staff Writer Trevor Aaronson at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or trevor.aaron [email protected].

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