A Statement by the Council of the American Studies Association at its November 14, 2002 Annual Business Meeting

As teachers and scholars of American culture and history we are deeply concerned about the storm of attacks on intellectual freedom and the ebb of open public debate, in the name of patriotism and a war on terror.

Free and frank intellectual inquiry is under assault by overt legislative acts and by a chilling effect of secrecy and intimidation in the government, media and on college campuses. This atmosphere hinders our ability to fulfill our role as educators: to promote public debate, conduct scholarly research, and most importantly, teach our students to think freely and critically and to explore diverse perspectives. Democracy is predicated on the right to question our government and leaders openly and to express dissent without fear. We are told, in fact, that our nation is ready to go to war to protect this precious freedom. The threat of war should not restrict public debate, as it often has in our nation’s past. Vigorous debate and the widest possible discussion are crucial to the health of our democracy.

We would like to draw attention to the following developments since September 11, 2001:

*The FBI and INS are asking universities and colleges to monitor and provide information about students from countries outside the U.S. This creates a climate of intimidation and suspicion inimical to free participation and exchange of ideas. Government contracts for scientific research now specify that international students be excluded from funded projects. Such conditions discourage international students from participating in our long tradition of international academic exchange crucial to the development of U.S. higher education. We applaud those universities that turn down these contracts and challenge the legality of FBI collaboration, and we encourage all administrations to follow suit. Denying equal rights and due process to foreign students creates an atmosphere of suspicion and fear for all of our students and drastically limits their intellectual universe

*The justice department’s new limits on the Freedom of Information Act jeopardizes our rights as scholars and citizens to have access to government information. For scholars seeking to understand our nation’s history, this law has been profoundly important in providing documents from all branches of government. These documents have shed especially important light on the history of movements for social change and American intervention abroad, histories which can better help us understand our own times. Access to documents also helps citizens make informed decisions about current policy and keeps government accountable. The FOIA was intended to reverse what now seems an alarming trend toward unprecedented government secrecy. It is imperative today that scholars and journalists in all fields have the widest possible access to information generated by our own government.

*The USA PATRIOT Act severely limits our most important tasks as scholars and teachers. Books and CD-ROMs are being removed from Federal depository libraries, and web sites are being closed for presumed terrorist ties. The ability of librarians to do their work is threatened by federal agencies that demand they turn over patron records. The rights of library users and book buyers are at risk when federal agencies can request these records, and our right to privacy-even to our own thoughts-is at risk when the government can monitor what we read. We urge the repeal of this act, which threatens to erode the foundation of intellectual freedom.

*University administrations are under pressure to silence faculty and researchers who take unpopular political positions. Organizations such as Campus Watch publish lists of faculty and students critical of US foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis Israel. They represent a broad trend among conservative commentators, who call for the censorship of faculty dissent and equate criticism of the government with being anti-American and anti-patriotic. We call on colleges and universities to resist external pressure to curtail academic freedom and to stop aiding federal agencies in the surveillance of teachers and scholars with scholarly or familial ties to other countries

History teaches us that we must reflect on who the ‘we’ of the American polity is and who the ‘enemy’ is, especially in a time of war when lives are at stake at home and abroad. As students of American history and culture, we hear disturbing echoes of World War I and the McCarthy era, when the government imprisoned its critics, and institutions of higher learning dismissed antiwar or “subversive” professors. The presumption that foreign students and teachers and Americans of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian descent are either ‘terrorists’ or ‘the enemy’ evokes shameful memories of the deportation of political dissidents during WW I, and the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. The intimidation of political dissidents and those perceived as foreign threatens the right of free speech for all and debases our American traditions of civil liberty, tolerance and inclusion.

To avoid repeating that ignominious history, we urge our colleagues, university administrations and elected representatives to repeal those policies, laws, and acts of censorship that endanger intellectual freedom. We affirm our commitment to classrooms where ideas are exchanged freely; to libraries where scholars can work free from intimidation for their political beliefs; to laboratories where students and teachers are free from suspicion because of their ethnic affiliations; and to campuses open to the widest range of opinions. Intellectual freedom - the freedom to ask questions, to uncover facts, to speak independently without fear - is the foundation of our democracy and remains of critical importance, especially in a time of crisis.

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