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ASU sued by Muslim scholar for alleged violation of free speech rights

The professor is suing ASU, the Arizona Board of Regents and Attorney General Mark Brnovich


ASU, the Arizona Board of Regents and Attorney General Mark Brnovich are being sued by University of California Berkeley Islamic law and theology professor Hatem Bazian for alleged violation of free speech rights. Graphic published on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

A professor is suing Arizona State University, the Arizona Board of Regents and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich for allegedly barring him from speaking on campus as his political beliefs violate a 2016 state law. 

On Feb. 22, the Muslim Student's Association (MSA) invited University of California Berkeley Islamic law and theology professor Hatem Bazian to speak at ASU on April 3. 

MSA invited Bazian to speak about Middle East conflicts through a Palestinian lens including topics like the "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" movement, which urges Israel to follow international law regarding settlement on Palestinian land.

Following ASU protocol, MSA students sent Bazian the University's outside speaker contract, which contained a "No Boycott Israel" clause that was added to the form in 2016 in response to a state law prohibiting a public entity from entering into a contract with a company that is engaged in a boycott of Israel. 

Bazian originally agreed to speak at ASU. But once the paperwork was sent to him by MSA, he could not sign the contract because he couldn't agree to that clause. 

According to Bret Hovell, the vice president of media relations and strategic communications for ASU, the form was revised in December of 2017 and the "No Boycott of Israel" clause was revised.

"We subsequently realized with greater legal analysis that (the law) does not apply to speakers exercising their First Amendment rights," Hovell said. "So it was put into the contract and it obviously looked like something we needed to deal with because we are a public entity." 

Gadeir Abbas, a Chicago civil rights attorney who is spearheading the lawsuit, said ASU is presenting implausible arguments about what is or is not a public institution. 

"If you look at the agreement, the agreement is not between the student body or the student group and the speaker," Abbas said. "The agreement is between the Board of Regents and the speaker." 

Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Arizona, said the clause's existence in the form, however temporary, violated the First Amendment as peaceful protest is a key part of American history. 

"This is really a free speech issue, without a doubt," Siddiqi said. "Every person in the United States has the ability to express themselves freely and have the ability to engage in freedom of speech." 

He said universities are usually a place where free speech is encouraged, and that this is a time in history when many different groups are expressing their thoughts. He said it seems that those who are standing up for Palestinian rights are "apparently not protected."

"However, why is the state of Arizona and Arizona State University saying that this specific, one type of speech is something that is not allowed," Siddiqi said. 

Hovell said the version of the contract which contained the "No Boycott of Israel" clause was likely sent to Bazian by a student from MSA as a result of a clerical error. 

"The student, and again I don't want to blame anyone because this is confusing stuff — the student used a revision of the contract from September of 2016," Hovell said. "I know for a fact that by December of 2017 the form had been changed so for some reason (MSA) had an old contract."

MSA advisor Nazeef Ebrahim said the organization has kept the event on the schedule but that it's unclear if Bazian can actually speak at ASU while the lawsuit is underway. 

"We've kept the reservation open and the invitation is still open, but since the lawsuit started —we're not involved with the lawsuit – we are in a gray area," Ebrahim said. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include further comment from the University.

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