RU AAUP Defends RU Center for Security, Race, and Rights in Letter to US Senate Committee

Above linked statement is the Rutgers AAUP response to the a US Senate Committee attack on the CSRR – the Center for Security Race and Rights. The full text appears below:

February 20, 2024

United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Washington, DC 20510-6275

Dear Senator Graham and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee,

We write regarding your February 6, 2024, letter addressed to Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and Chairman William Best concerning the Center for Security, Race, and Rights (the Center) based at Rutgers University, in Newark, New Jersey. Founded in 2018, the Center is a hub of intellectual activity at Rutgers-Newark that hosts speakers of diverse backgrounds and with diverse viewpoints. Indeed, it is the first civil rights center at a U.S. law school focused on research, education, and advocacy in defense of the civil and human rights of South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs. It is troubling to see a group of elected officials use their powers to try to suppress free speech, undercut academic freedom, and reduce the educational opportunities of our notably diverse law school at Rutgers University on topics impacting millions of Americans.

The Center regularly hosts events that address timely issues within American society, as well as other societies worldwide. The Center thereby contributes to the mission of Rutgers University to “be a national leader in 21st-century higher education through a commitment to the values of educating a diverse citizenry, producing high impact scholarship, engaging in our community as an anchor institution, and drawing the connection between local and global, for the improvement of the economic and social well-being of society as a whole.” We at Rutgers are proud of the critical work of the Center for Security, Race, and Rights in advancing our core values and goals as a university. We recognize the importance of the Center’s wide-ranging work, both when we agree with the content of any particular presentation given there, as well as when we do not. 

The Center sponsors events on a wide variety of topics, not just those related to the Middle East.  For example, the Center’s most recent event—on February 5, 2024, the day before you sent your letter—was a lecture titled “White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality.” The lecture addressed the origins and ongoing ramifications of United States residential segregation, a major issue that impacts Americans on a society-wide level.  Similarly, the Center’s first lecture in the 2023–24 academic year was titled “Punishing Atrocities and Fair Trials: From Nuremberg to Global Terrorism,” which addressed how international law developed to prosecute Nazis after the Holocaust set the foundation for subsequent prosecutions of state officials for war crimes and violations of human rights.

We are aware that some political officials on national and state levels disagree with select viewpoints that have been expressed by certain speakers at the Center over the years, and to that we say: Welcome to university life. At Rutgers, we all—professors and students alike—encounter views with which we disagree, even views that upset us. This is not a flaw but rather an essential component of a successful university. Scholars and students are at our best—and best able to contribute to American society—when we are exposed to a wide range of challenging ideas.

At Rutgers, as at all public universities, individuals are free to express controversial viewpoints under two essential doctrines: freedom of speech and academic freedom. Each principle protects all the examples of speech that you find discomforting in your letter. Together, freedom of speech and academic freedom provide ironclad frameworks to ensure that everyone at Rutgers is free to engage in the critical, challenging work involved in our educational mission.

The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is foundational to American life. Free speech is a “bedrock American liberty,” as U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell put it in 2022. 

Rutgers University, as a public institution, is required to uphold that freedom of speech on campus under United States law. In the 1972 landmark case Healy v. James, the United States Supreme Court held, by an eight-member majority, that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.” The Court went on to elaborate: “The precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.” Quite to the contrary, the Court affirmed the declaration it made in Shelton v. Tucker in 1960: “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

Free speech can be messy and upsetting. The United States Supreme Court addressed this in its majority decision, in the case Terminiello v. Chicago in 1949, noting that “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Your letter communicates your anger regarding certain viewpoints that you perceived to have been platformed at the Center, and yet that anger should have no bearing on current or future activities of the Center. If anything, it shows that freedom of speech is working. Rutgers would be violating United States law if it acted to control or monitor speech or punish its faculty for exercising such rights.

Rutgers is obligated to uphold the broad free speech rights of faculty under an additional doctrine: academic freedom. Academic freedom is defined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), on its website, as follows: “Academic freedom is the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities. Academic freedom also protects the right of a faculty member to speak freely when participating in institutional governance, as well as to speak freely as a citizen.” This definition derives from the foundational 1940 AAUP statement on academic freedom that outlines how academic freedom applies to both research and teaching.

The AAUP’s definition of academic freedom specifically condemns “interference from political figures.” This is because we recognize that pressure from politicians can constitute intimidation of those with significantly fewer resources, such as faculty or students at a state university. Academic freedom also disallows interference in academic activities by “boards of trustees, donors, or other entities.” We hope that clarifies some of the insinuations of your letter that donors exercise control over activities at the Center; they do not. It also should point out the futility of trying to lean on university leaders to strike at the heart of what has made American universities so globally prominent and that enables all we do at Rutgers to achieve excellence in teaching and research: academic freedom.

Rutgers University has its own Policy on Academic Freedom, which was adopted nearly 75 years ago and reaffirmed by President Jonathan Holloway in 2021. In 2023, the statement was incorporated into the contract for full-time faculty at Rutgers. Holloway’s 2021 statement explicitly states that even speech “offensive to many,” which does “not represent the position of the University,” is still protected. The statement goes on to clarify: “All members of our community—our faculty members, students, alumni, and staff—are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens, including viewpoints that the University itself may not share. And we do not restrict the activities of recognized university organizations, including the speakers they invite to campus.”

Unfortunately, your letter contains some inaccuracies, especially regarding the term “antisemitic.” As defined in the Jerusalem Declaration, antisemitism is “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews.” We condemn antisemitism along with all other forms of racism and bigotry. We also condemn those who misuse the term “antisemitism” for their own ends, a callous move that makes it more difficult to counter anti-Jewish sentiments in America. Criticizing Israel is not de facto antisemitic, just as criticizing the self-proclaimed “Islamic” states of Iran and Afghanistan is not de facto anti-Muslim. To conflate ethnic hatred with legitimate state criticism is disingenuous and endangers us all.

We stand behind Professor Aziz’s exercise of freedom of speech and academic freedom. We also stand behind the Center for Security, Race, and Rights at Rutgers University-Newark and its exercise of freedom of speech and academic freedom, even as we recognize the robust disagreement within our own membership about some views and arguments presented at the Center. Indeed, robust disagreement and academic freedom do not conflict; rather, they dovetail to produce a critical scholarly community that makes Rutgers a globally competitive institution.

Rutgers University provides a life-changing education for thousands of students every year, with all three of our campuses (New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden) offering degrees that enable social mobility and pathways to success. To assist us in our important work, we encourage you to abandon your attacks on higher education and freedom of speech.

Todd Wolfson, President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, for the Executive Council
Bryan Sacks, President, Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, for the Executive Board