An Open Letter

From California Scholars for Academic Freedom

To the Los Angeles City Council

Council Members: Gilbert Cedillo, Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield, Tom LaBonge, Paul Koretz, Nury Martinez, Felipe Fuentes, Bernard Parks, Curren D. Price, Jr., Herb J. Wesson, Jr., Mike Bonin, Mitchell Englander, Mitch O'Farrell, Jose Huizar, Joe Buscaino

June 2014

Dear Los Angeles City Council Representatives;

We write on behalf of California Scholars for Academic Freedom, an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred and fifty faculty at universities throughout California (cs4af),* to express strong opposition to Los Angeles City Council Resolution #14-0002-S67.   This resolution was presented by Bob Blumenfield and Nury Martinez on May 27, 2014 and has been referred to the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee.   Resolution #14-0002-S67, hereafter referred to as the Blumenfield Resolution, is available in its entirety online [1].

The Blumenfield Resolution is an assault on free speech and academic freedom.  It comes in response to a student written pledge that candidates for student body elections at UCLA were asked to sign in Spring 2014.   Student activists who supported and circulated the pledge were concerned that off-campus groups would lobby student leaders and council members through free trips and other in-kind gifts as a means of buying loyalty and influencing student council votes.

The voluntary pledge asked UCLA student candidates to promise, while in office, not to "accept free or sponsored trips that marginalize communities on the UCLA campus. This includes any outside non-student organization that promotes discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental ability, marital status, financial status or social status, or which engages in any form of systematic prejudiced oppression." 

Free trips to Israel funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Hasbara Fellowships were specifically identified in the pledge because, "as many students have experienced this year, AIPAC and ADL have political agendas that marginalize multiple communities on campus" and "Hasbara Fellowships is housed under Aish International, an organization which has helped disseminate Islamophobic materials on campuses and around the country. These materials portray the Muslim community as threats, have incited violence against Muslims, and serve to marginalize Muslim students on campus."   Elaboration, justifications, and references were provided within the pledge statement (available online [2]), and are articulated in a separate document [3].  Of the approximately 30 candidates running for student body offices, 17 voluntarily signed the pledge,  and one of the pledge signers was elected UCLA student body president [4].
Responding to the controversy that inevitably ensues when Israel is criticized, UCLA Chancellor Block sent an email to the campus community in which he criticized the pledge, but also defended it as protected speech as follows [5]:

"Prior to the recent student elections, some student groups asked candidates to sign a pledge promising not to go on such trips. The pledge was not sanctioned, proposed or required by our current student government or the university administration. No one was barred from running for office, participating in the election or serving on the council as a result of not signing the pledge. Some students signed, others did not. Both signatories and non-signatories won offices. The decision to circulate this pledge and the choice to sign it or not fall squarely within the realm of free speech, and free speech is sacrosanct to any university campus."

City Representative Bob Blumenfield is a former Chair of the Anti-Defamation League's San Fernando Valley Chapter so it is not surprising that in its third paragraph, the Blumenfield Resolution describes AIPAC and ADL as "reputable non-profit organizations," in sharp contrast to the student pledge document [1].  Following that, the Blumenfield Resolution makes the accusation, without any evidence, that "the [UCLA student] pledge request was part of a larger campaign which has used intimidation as a tactic." To build its case, the Resolution also asserts:

"the pledge request did not concern a policy issue relevant to the University, but rather the legitimacy of the State of Israel — a democratic country that is a U.S. ally."

The above accusation is remarkable for its shortsightedness and hypocrisy.  First, it ignores the freedoms guaranteed to students to express opinions about issues whether or not they relate to the University. Political speech, in particular, is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and this protection is the foundation of academic freedom and democracy itself.  Second, the accusation is strikingly hypocritical because the Blumenfield Resolution itself has nothing to do with the City of Los Angeles and thus goes beyond the duties of the Los Angeles City Council.  Its purpose instead is to support the propaganda efforts of a foreign country.  Third,  there is nothing in the pledge that questions the legitimacy of Israel, but even if there was, the First Amendment guarantees students  that right. 

The Blumenfield Resolution charges that the University does not go far enough to inhibit speech critical of Israel and further conflates and distorts the voluntary student pledge with "bullying," "intimidation," and "harassment" in this passage:

"comments by the UCLA and UC President indicate appropriate concern. they do not address serious underlying concerns related to bullying tactics intended to intimidate students with differing viewpoints and to protect students from harassment and personal, vengeful attacks;"

The Blumenfield Resolution then surmises from the above statement that, "additional action must be taken... to ensure that students are protected from bullying and harassment."  Through these distortions the syllogism is completed with the final resolution that:

"the City of Los Angeles hereby includes in its 2013-2014 State Legislative Program support for administrative action by the University of California Board of Regents and President of the University of California to develop policies and institute practices that will be implemented at every University of California campus so that intimidation or harassment of any student not be tolerated and where appropriate referred to the proper law enforcement agencies."

In short, the Blumenfield Resolution first mis-identifies the voluntary student pledge with "bullying," "intimidation," and "harassment."  It then finds that the UC administration has taken insufficient steps to address those concerns, and then resolves that Los Angeles City Council will seek stronger measures so that this "intimidation or harassment" is not tolerated.

The Blumenfield Resolution is a transparent attempt to bypass constitutional protections of free speech in order to inhibit criticisms of Israeli policies and human rights violations.  California Scholars for Academic Freedom urges all Los Angeles City Council members in the strongest possible terms to vote against this misguided resolution.


[1] L.A. City Council Resolution Resolution #14-0002-S67

[2] Joint Statement On USAC Ethics

[3] The Israel Lobby's Use of Free Trips to Sway Student Government

[4] Stances on Israel roil UCLA campus, Jason Song, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2014

[5] UCLA Chancellor Block's email

Endorsers, with Primary contacts indicated by (**)

Kevin B. Anderson
Professor of Sociology, Political Science, and Feminist Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Joel Beinin
Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History
Stanford University

Eileen Boris
Hull Professor and Chair
Department of Feminist Studies
Professor of History and Black Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Judith Butler
Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory
University of California, Berkeley

Samera Esmeir
Associate Professor
Department of Rhetoric
University of California, Berkeley

Richard Falk
Research Professor, Orfalea Center
University of California, Santa Barbara
Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

Claudio Fogu
Associate Professor
French and Italian Studioes
University of California, Santa Barbara

Aranye Fradenburg
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
University of California, Santa Barbara

Gary Fields
University of California, San Diego
Department of Communication

Manzar Foroohar
History Professor
California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo

Nancy Gallagher
Research Professor
Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Jess Ghannam
Clinical Professor
Department of Psychiatry, and Global Health Sciences
School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco

Larry Gross
Professor and Director
School of Communication
Vice Dean
Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
University of Southern California

Sondra Hale**
Research Professor and Professor Emerita
Anthropology and Gender Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

Gail Hershatter
Distinguished Professor of History
University of California, Santa Cruz

Suad Joseph
Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies
University of California, Davis

Katherine King**
Professor of Comparative Literature,
University of California, Los Angeles

David Klein**
Professor of Mathematics
Director, Climate Science Program
California State University, Northridge

Dennis Kortheuer, Ph. D.
Department of History
California State University, Long Beach

Rose Marie Kuhn
Professor of French
California State University, Fresno

Mark LeVine
Department of History
University of California, Irvine

David Lloyd
Department of English
University of California, Riverside

Saree Makdisi**
Professor of English Literature
University of California, Los Angeles

Flagg Miller
Professor of Religious Studies
University of California, Davis

Helene Moglen
Professor Emerita, Literature
University of California, Santa Cruz

Kathleen M. Moore, Professor and Chair
Religious Studies Department
Affiliated faculty, Law and Society
University of California, Santa Barbara

Ahlam Muhtaseb, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Communication Studies
California State University, San Bernardino

Gabriel Piterberg**
Professor of History
Director of the Gustav von Grunebaum Center for Near East Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

Ismail K. Poonawala**
Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

James Quesada, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Anthropology
San Francisco State University

Rush Rehm
Professor, Theater and Performance Studies, and Classics
Artistic Director, Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT, formerly Stanford Summer Theater)

Craig Reinarman
Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies
University of California, Santa Cruz

Vida Samiian
Dean, College of Arts and Humanities
California State University, Fresno

David Shorter**
Associate Professor and Vice Chair
World Arts and Cultures/Dance
University of California, Los Angeles

Judith Stevenson, Phd Anthropology
Director, Peace and Social Justice Program
Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development
California State University, Long Beach

Stephen Zunes
Professor of Politics and Coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies
University of San Francisco

*CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM is a group of nearly 200 academics who teach in 20 California institutions.  The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing  attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities.  Our goal of protecting California Scholars based mainly in institutions of higher education has grown broader in scope to include threats to academic freedom across the United States, and where relevant, globally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.