Opponents say bill restricting how state colleges, universities spend public money is unconstitutional -- Gazette.Net


ANNAPOLIS — Opponents of a bill to restrict how Maryland’s college and universities spend public funds say the legislation is unconstitutional and tantamount to a boycott of its own.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Derwood has introduced a bill that would punish colleges and universities who spend public money on participation in organizations that engage in academic boycotts by cutting 3 percent of their state funding. Sen. Joan Cater Conway (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore has introduced the same bill in the Senate.

Broadly, the bill addresses the appropriate use of public funds by state colleges and universities.

Specifically, it restricts higher education institutions from spending public funds to support — through membership fees or travel expenses — academic boycotts of countries that have agreed to cooperate with the state.

The bill reacts to a recent boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association — a national organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history — as well as a decision by the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County to maintain its annual membership in the association.

At a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Sara N. Love, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the ACLU opposes the bill because it is “inimical to democratic principles.”

Under a guise of protecting academic freedom, the bill penalizes a particular viewpoint as unacceptable and acts as a censor in an academic controversy, Love said in her testimony.

She also said the Supreme Court has found similar actions by governments unconstitutional.

Even its Senate sponsor is not convinced. Conway said her bill is simply a “placeholder” and that while she agrees with it conceptually, she is not sold on all of its details. She also said she looks to amend the bill to remove the penalty.

Scott Casper, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at UMBC, said the bill’s penalty would have a deleterious effect on students and faculty.

Faculty join scholarly organizations such as ASA to present, publish and have peer review of their research, Asim Ali, a professor at UMBC said. The bill would make it impossible for scholars to do their jobs, he said.

Karen Ackerman, who is part of the Jewish Voice for Peace, said the bill would chill free speech by placing sanctions on universities that in any way support an organization that takes a position by boycotting.

Peter Mallios, professor of English at the University of Maryland, said the bill attempts to protest an academic boycott of Israel, by legislating an academic boycott of the American Studies Association.

While most spoke either for or against the bill, few could avoid the elephant standing atop the issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The American Studies Association boycotted Israeli schools over claims that Palestinian scholars and students are being deprived of their academic freedom in Israel.

Proponents of Kramer’s bill called the ASA boycott anti-Semitic, noting it only targeted Israel, not other nations.

However, opponents of the bill were divided. Some defended the boycott as justified free speech on a human rights issue, others called the boycott “ill-conceived” and a few remained neutral.