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Freedom of Speech

America is the Land of the Free. We have fought wars to defend freedom --- indeed, the current operation in Afghanistan is code-named ``Enduring Freedom.'' And yet, in times of stress or danger, freedom itself comes under attack, often by people waving freedom as a banner. And in time of war, freedom is supposed to stand on a pedestal --- and stay there.

Freedom to Dissent

From the beginning, Americans insisted on the right to dissent: that is part of the freedoms of speech, press, association, and petition guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. After all, how could we defend our other freedoms and rights if we could not even express our support of our freedoms and rights?

Unions particularly insisted on the right to dissent, it is only by exercising our First Amendment rights can a union function. Unions have fought for the freedom of speech and of the press, the right to associate and form associations, the right to petition, to demonstrate, and to vote. So it is quite consistent for the United Faculty of Florida to continue to defend freedom.

So how does the Freedom of Expression apply to this case?

  • Our tradition on dissent.

    ``Anyone who says that this isn't a free country,'' quipped Art Hoppe, ``ought to be clapped in jail.''
    • Weakness. Our flag says that we are the land of the free and home of brave, but sometimes --- especially in stressful and dangerous times --- we have not lived up to those ideals. Out of fear, we strip unpopular and eccentric people of their freedoms. These episodes --- mob actions (including lynchings), unlawful prosecutions, detentions, etc. --- come back to haunt us afterwards, and repeatedly an older generation has to explain to a younger one, that ... that out of a lack of bravery came a lack of freedom.
    • Strength. Yet the fact that the explaining was necessary shows that the ideals have managed to survive the repeated dry blasts and shattering frosts. Many Americans are willing to step forward and say, ``I think he's wrong (perhaps very, very wrong), but in America he is free to speak.'' This courage of Americans to defend the rights of their opponents is what keeps America free.
    • Freedom. So unlike some other nations, the American government mostly avoids proceeding against people for speaking their minds. That should go for a refugee who cannot even go home, like Professor Al-Arian.
    America is a free country, indeed the most free in the world. It will remain that way as long as Americans truly believe in freedom.
  • Can an employer fire a noisy employee?

    But it is just Professor Al-Arian's job that is at stake (at least right now). Doesn't an employer have the right to fire people whose off-duty activities inconvenience that employer?
    • A tricky problem. First of all, the employer is the State of Florida, so we have the slight problem of an American government proceeding against someone for something they said.
    • The real question. Second, does the employer really have the right to fire employees for what employees say off the job site? Current law lets many employers fire employees for wearing green cloths, running for the school board, or submitting nude paintings to a local gallery. Yet current law does not let employers fire employees for the color of their skin, or their sex, or for whistleblowing. Out of historical accident, some reasons for dismissal are legal and others are not; it's a matter of legislation and contracts.
    • Follow that question. So perhaps the question is: should an employer have the right to fire an employee for wearing green cloths? In fact, should an employer have the right to fire an employee for writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, opposing something that the employer wants? Remember, this is an era with huge institutional employers, big corporations and big government agencies. In such a David and Goliath confrontation, why should Goliath have all the rights?
    • Perhaps everyone should get First Amendment protection. This is why unions were formed: to enable all the Davids to combine and face Goliath together. By standing together, the unions won many things that we take for granted: fringe benefits, the forty-hour week (a hundred years ago, when cable car operators called to reduce their work-time to sixty hours, they were called ``communistic''), vacations, retirement, cost of living increases, etc. Perhaps it is time to add off-the-job Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Conscience to this list --- and the unions are the ones to lead the way.
    As far as the law is concerned, there is no reason why Professor Al-Arian's rights should be special. All Americans should have the Freedom of Expression and the Freedom of Conscience without fearing summary dismissal from the personnel office. This legal right can be obtained: this is something that a union can accomplish, but only if Americans are willing to form unions and fight for their rights.
It is not that academics have special rights that should be taken away; it is that non-academic Americans should have rights that they currently don't have. The essence of the American experiment is that a society can exist when ordinary people are free. Ultimately, academics are ordinary people, and ordinary people are academics. Anyone who is curious about the world and who studies it, be it railroads, cellular dynamics, Anglo-Saxon poetry, civil war military tactics, large corporations, analytic number theory, Russian ballet, or labor organizing, is a scholar. Some of us are hired by institutions with academic freedom policies, but all of us are protected by the notion that curiousity is a good thing --- for ourselves and for society --- and that the pursuit of where our curiousity leads us is a right.

Scholars don't really deserve more rights than other people. They have merely obtained more rights --- by fighting for them. And other Americans can get these rights. The Courts are not going to just give Americans these rights: like academics, non-academics will have to organize and fight for their rights. And this is something that unions can do.