Kent State professor case: When does academic speech justify FBI probe?

Federal law enforcement has investigated a Kent State professor on suspicion of links to ISIS, renewing a debate about the extent of academic freedom.

Reports that Kent State professor Julio Pino has been under investigation on suspicion of links to the Islamic State have re-sparked debates about balancing security concerns with the protection of free speech and academic freedom.

Most colleges and universities strive for an atmosphere that allows for the robust exchange of ideas. Tenure exists in part to help ensure that professors are not penalized for expressing unpopular and contentious views.

But especially after the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks, there are heightened concerns about people in the United States supporting or carrying out Islamic State-related attacks. That leads to the question: When does academic speech cross a line that justifies a probe by law enforcement?

Professor Pino has been under investigation for a year and a half and is suspected of recruiting students to join the Islamic State, according to a report by student journalist Emily Mills, whose source was an unnamed FBI agent. Federal law enforcement interviewed her and about 20 other students about the professor, who became a Muslim in 2000, Ms. Mills’s article stated. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has assured university officials that there is no threat to the campus.

David Schanzer, a professor and director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, has no information about the FBI’s reasoning behind the probe into Pino. But generally speaking, Professor Schanzer says, “Speech in public forums is certainly something that the FBI is allowed to take into account when deciding whether to open an investigation. The FBI needs to weigh very carefully whether it is pure political speech or is in some way indicative of potential criminal activity. That’s a line that has to be strongly protected, especially in an academic setting.”

But if that line appears to have been crossed, Schanzer says, “expressions of support for groups on the foreign terrorist organization list ought to be checked out.”

The FBI cannot investigate someone purely on the basis of constitutionally protected speech, according to guidelines for the agency.

Pino, who teaches Latin American history on the Kent, Ohio, campus, is a tenured professor, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. He has been in the news over the years for a variety of controversial written and spoken statements. A supporter of Palestinians, he once shouted “death to Israel” during a forum at the university. In 2014, he penned an open letter to “academic friends of Israel,” holding them “responsible for the murder of over 1,400” Palestinians. In the letter, which was published by the History News Network, he signed off with the phrase, “Jihad until victory!”

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Pino suspects those controversial statements prompted the investigation. “I’ve never broken the law. I support no violence or violent organizations.... One man or one woman’s interpretation of events can be very different from another’s,” the paper quoted him as saying after news of the investigation broke this week.

But Pino also may have made social media postings that could be interpreted as positive toward groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Clarion Project, a nonprofit that characterizes itself as “devoted to exposing the dangers of Islamist extremism,” posted screenshots from a Facebook page that appears to be Pino’s. They include comments praising “Sheik Osama” and suggesting the supporters of Al Qaeda should join the Islamic State. Critics of the Clarion Project say it engages in unwarranted fear-mongering.

This week’s reports about Pino have stirred up calls on social media for Kent State to remove him from campus.

Universities have a responsibility to weigh the facts carefully. “As a matter of academic freedom, they can’t just [fire or suspend someone] the moment someone makes an accusation,” says Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law. But if there is evidence that gives them reason to believe a professor is guilty of a crime, they can act. “Universities don’t have to operate from a beyond-reasonable-doubt stance,” he says.

Kent State President Beverly Warren released a statement Wednesday saying the university was cooperating with the investigation and could not comment in detail. “We continue to find Julio Pino’s comments reprehensible and counter to our core values of civil discourse and respect. As a university, we do not defend his views,” she said in part.

Some scholars who are concerned about anti-Israel rhetoric say that for too long, claims of academic freedom have been used to justify statements that should be treated as hate speech.

“Many universities have refused to tackle the issue of radical Islam,” says Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a nonprofit that monitors and opposes the movement to use boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. “Even discussing terrorism ... has been in some places soft-pedaled.... The fact of the matter is that even the Muslim world acknowledges that radical Islam is a problem within Islam.”

Especially after the recent terror attacks, Mr. Romirowsky says, “we have a right to be vigilant” about people who don’t just discuss the origins of terrorism but also actively endorse it. “That represents a security threat to our shores and a threat to academia at large.”

On the other hand, some foreign policy scholars say that those who try to raise the issue of how Palestinians are treated are too often slandered as anti-Semitic or pro-terrorist.

“It is curious that the FBI publicly identified Professor Pino despite apparently no evidence beyond his past outspoken rhetoric that he is in any way engaged in ‘terrorist’ activities.... The endless ‘war on terror’ and the increasingly racist and reckless rhetoric that often accompanies it exerts a chilling effect,” writes Walter Hixson, a diplomatic and cultural historian at the University of Akron in Ohio, in an e-mail to the Monitor. He called Pino's "death to Israel" statement tasteless, but noted that generally, “It is difficult these days in the USA to have an honest discussion about aggressive Israeli policies.”

Investigations and arrests of professors in the US on suspicion of support for terrorism are relatively rare.

One example is Sami Al-Arian, a professor at the University of South Florida who was tried on charges of supporting Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group on the US government’s list of terrorist organizations.

After a jury acquitted Mr. Al-Arian, a permanent resident in the US, of some of the charges and deadlocked on others, he entered a plea bargain and was sentenced to prison and then deportation. In the plea, he admitted to contributing services to or for the PIJ, but his lawyer, Jonathan Turley, wrote that this was related to Al-Arian hiring a lawyer for his brother-in-law and sponsoring a Palestinian to do research in the US. Mr. Turley wrote that “the case raised troubling due process, academic freedom, and free speech issues.”

For their part, the leaders of Kent State’s Muslim Students’ Association responded to an inquiry from the Monitor with a written statement.

“Any situation that works to drive people towards generalized fear and anger rather than intentional solution building is divisive,” the statement reads in part. “This is of concern to us, as Muslims, because our tradition teaches us the inherent value of every human soul.... [W]e will continue to promote a culture of love and service through our interfaith work, community outreach, faith studies, and social engagement.”

Pino did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

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