The Hamas-Endorsing Professor and Academic Freedom

by David French

Nathan, thanks much for highlighting the story of Bassam Frangieh, Claremont McKenna’s resident Hamas supporter. There’s little doubt that his comments are within the bounds of academic freedom. Radical professors make all kinds of radical statements, and we have no evidence at this point that he’s done anything more than pay lip service to the fashionable sympathy for — as you put it — “perpetrators of violence against Jews and Americans.” His comments are reprehensible, yes, but if he’s doing the job that Claremont McKenna hired him to do, then those statements do not — by themselves — disqualify him from teaching nor should they cause him to have to pack his cardboard boxes and “hit the road.”

There are, however, two important caveats to this assessment. First, because Claremont McKenna is a private university, it has its own quite substantial academic-freedom interests, and it can hire and fire professors based on the values the college itself wishes to endorse and project. If Dr. Frangieh’s speech is at odds with the private college’s desired message, the college can take action, much like Christian colleges can prohibit their professors from endorsing atheism or Islam. But if Claremont holds itself out as a school that embraces intellectual diversity and protects academic freedom at least to the extent public colleges must, then it cannot (or, more precisely, should not) punish Dr. Frangieh.  

Second, if Dr. Frangieh’s words were accompanied by any actions in support of jihad, academic freedom wouldn’t protect him from his school, or from law enforcement. There’s a world of difference between praising Hamas and distributing bomb-making instructions over the Internet. Yet his statements may make him a person worth watching — after all, it would be hardly unusual if radical words signaled a willingness to engage in radical actions. During our long war against jihadists, we’ll need to respect the wide boundaries of the marketplace of ideas while also casting a watchful and wary eye towards those who so openly praise our hideously violent enemies.