The day after the segment aired scores of angry e-mail and phone messages flooded USF’s administrative offices most demanding Al-Arian’s immediate ouster. Some however contained death threats which led USF president Judy Genshaft to put Al-Arian on paid leave banning him from campus until further notice.
Al-Arian had ed a similar suspension from 1995 until 1997 as a result of a federal investigation into his dealings with PIJ but USF hired him back in 1998 ostensibly to uphold ‘academic freedom.’ Would Al-Arian have been rehired if he were white preaching violence against blacks and Mexicans? It’s highly doubtful but in December 2001 thanks in large part to public pressure USF corrected a longstanding wrong when its university’s board of trustees voted 12-1 to fire Al-Arian.
‘I respect I value academic freedom and I know this is an exceptional and unique case ‘ Genshaft told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002. ‘The dean and campus police have said that there’s no way to bring [Al-Arian] back…This man brings harm’s way with him when he comes onto campus… I don’t want to wait for somebody to be killed or to be harmed to take action.’
In a statement released the day after Al-Arian’s firing was announced Florida Governor Jeb Bush agreed with Genshaft saying ‘The taxpayers have no obligation to continue paying a teacher whose own actions have made it impossible for him to teach.’ Add to this the potential losses in funding alumni support and national reputation caused by retaining a pariah like Al-Arian on the USF payroll and Genshaft had little choice but to dismiss him. Or so she thought. Because to see a Muslim man of Middle Eastern descent being castigated so shortly after 9/11 was far too much for the national media to bear.
‘The Prime-Time Smearing of Sami Al-Arian’ screamed the headline in the January 19 2002 edition of the left-wing on-line journal Salon.com. ‘By pandering to anti-Arab hysteria ‘ read the subheading. ‘NBC Fox News Media General and Clear Channel radio disgraced themselves — and ruined an innocent professor’s life.’
The ensuing article by writer Eric Boehlert who was perhaps Al-Arian’s most strident media supporter up until his arrest (oddly enough he’s barely written a word about Al-Arian since) included statements such as: ‘The Al-Arian episode raises disturbing questions about free speech academic freedom and the future of tenured status….The University of South Florida is ultimately responsible for firing Al-Arian. But equally culpable are Fox News Channel NBC Media General (specifically its Tampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks all four media giants eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear latched onto the Al-Arian story fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.’
To Boehlert’s sensitive liberal mind Al-Arian was a persecuted minority whose good name was dragged through the mud by nasty right-wingers simply for opposing Israel. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents Al-Arian arrived in America in 1975 and maintained a comfortable middle-class existence until his role with PIJ was finally revealed.
Although not a U.S. citizen Al-Arian who is married with five children earned $66 000 per year as a tenured professor and even won awards for outstanding teaching from the USF School of Engineering in 1993 and 1994. To see a heartwarming Third World success story like this be given such a downer of an ending was unacceptable to Boehlert who wrote ‘Not even his harshest critics suggest Al-Arian has done anything in the last five years that could be even remotely construed as aiding terrorist organizations. The entire controversy sprang from the fact that viewers became enraged after old allegations were re-aired albeit often in mangled form by O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s accusatory and hectoring interrogation of Al-Arian filled with false statements and McCarthy-like smears climaxed in a chilling parting shot in which the host repeatedly told his stammering guest that if he were with the CIA I’d follow you wherever you went? — clearly implying that he believed Al-Arian was a terrorist.’