A professor of women’s and gender studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh is the target of a new campaign that she says threatens academic freedom.
Simona Sharoni, who has written extensively on gender and the situation in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, says the harassment campaign was triggered after she gave an interview in the spring to the The Establishment, a publication funded and run by women with the aim of creating more diverse media.
In the interview, Sharoni expands on the subject of her current research: the relevance of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) to transnational feminism, both concentrations of her own activism.
She highlights parallels between Palestinian victims of Israeli violence and victims of sexual assault.
“Power is made invisible,” she says. “Focus is placed on the relationship, not on the system.”
Following the publication of the article in April, an outpouring of tweets and emails were sent to her, some threatening violence according to Sharoni.
Several months later, on 6 September, Sharoni says she was informed by a school administrator that an individual had made five requests under New York’s Freedom of Information Law asking for records on her hiring, employment history and participation in academic conferences.
According to Sharoni, Sean Brian Dermody, assistant to the vice president for administration and director of management services at SUNY Plattsburgh, asked Sharoni to help with the request by locating the records and turning them over.
The next day, Sharoni says, Dermody sent a follow-up email asking her to give him all correspondence in her possession related to her hiring. Sharoni began working at SUNY Plattsburgh in 2007. She became a professor in 2010.
In a subsequent communication, Sharoni says Dermody told her that the first individual to have made requests is Debra Glazer, who identified herself as a part of Stand With Us, an Israel advocacy group that has received funding from the Israeli government.
The group is behind a number of campaigns targeting activists and scholars who work with the Palestine solidarity community in the United States.
Sharoni says Dermody also told her that a second person, Jonathan Slosser, made an additional five information requests.
In the latest update, Sharoni says she was informed that a request was made to disclose all of her travel authorizations and records of what she did and who paid for it.
On Monday, the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) wrote a letter to SUNY Plattsburgh’s president, provost and dean in support of Sharoni.
“It appears to us that these [Freedom of Information Law] requests are part of the continuing campaign to harass and intimidate Professor Sharoni because she has expressed certain political views,” MESA president Beth Baron and executive director Amy W. Newhall state.
Sharoni is a member of MESA, which has no formal position on BDS.
“We also believe that SUNY Plattsburgh has a clear responsibility to defend Professor Sharoni and all of its other employees from threat and intimidation, in keeping with the constitutionally protected right of free speech and with the principles of academic freedom,” the letter adds.
It also advises university officials to “exercise extreme caution and responsible judgment in reviewing and approving [Freedom of Information Law] requests for records pertaining to Professor Sharoni, so as not to be complicit in furthering the campaign of harassment being waged against her.”
Ken Knelly, a spokesperson for the university, stressed to The Electronic Intifada that the administration must follow the law. “We are subject to the New York State Freedom of Information Law,” which he says was created to ensure that the government and its institutions are responsive to the public. “The law is based on a presumption of access.”
In response to concerns that the requests may be part of a campaign of intimidation and harassment, as Sharoni and MESA argue, Knelly said the school will review the requests. “Based on the content of individual records requested, we can restrict access if exemptions apply in accordance with state law.”
“We need to follow the law,” he said.
Bob Freeman, executive director of New York’s Committee on Open Government, told The Electronic Intifada that according to precedent dating back to the beginning of the Freedom of Information Law, public records are accessible to anyone without regard to the nature of their interest.
Freeman noted that a request can only be denied if it meets the standard of an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.” He remarked that if every government employee could protest that a Freedom of Information request was intended to intimidate them, then not many requests would be granted.
But Sharoni and MESA are not alone in believing that faculty members should be protected from what could be chilling and frivolous open records requests.
In 2012, a joint task force on academic freedom at the University of California, Los Angeles published a Statement on the Principles of Scholarly Research and Public Records Requests, in response to what it calls a “great concern that faculty at public universities throughout the country are increasingly the objects of requests through state and federal public records acts for emails, notes, drafts and other documents.”
“These requests have increasingly been used for political purposes or to intimidate faculty working on controversial issues,” it states.
The task force concludes by arguing for a distinction between academic public institutions and other government bodies: “The academic enterprise is intrinsically different from other enterprises conducted for the benefit of the public. Its product, knowledge, is intangible, yet it informs all of society in countless tangible ways, including technology, medical care, ecology and art. Academia can only make these tremendous contributions to the quality of our lives if it operates according to the standards that have ensured its freedom from bias and its unwavering devotion to truth, whatever that truth may be.”
Palestine Legal told The Electronic Intifada that the information requests were part of a campaign against Sharoni based on her support for Palestinian rights and BDS, and “must be recognized as an intimidation tactic.”
“The school has a legal obligation to respond to [Freedom of Information Law] requests,” the legal advocacy group added, “but it also has an obligation to prevent the ‘unwarranted invasion of personal privacy’ of its employees, including by disclosing their employment histories.”
Palestine Legal said the university must “carefully consider the request against Sharoni’s privacy rights, especially given the clear intent of the [information request] to damage her reputation and employment.”
Following the publication of MESA’s letter, SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling sent a campus-wide email on 14 September affirming the school’s commitment to principles of free speech and academic freedom.
Though Ettling did not refer to Sharoni or any specific issue, he emphasized the need to protect these principles in the case of unpopular positions.
“Consistent with regulations of the SUNY Board of Trustees, the College seeks to encourage and preserve freedom of expression and inquiry within the entire college community,” Ettling said.
“Some of these expressions may contradict widely held or popular values, theories and beliefs. We have a special commitment to protect these expressions and should not attempt to repress a particular view because it is considered morally or personally offensive to members of the college community or the general public.”
But Sharoni, who says she hopes that the administrators stand by the president’s statement and do not release the requested information, rejects the idea that her speech has been controversial.
“There is nothing controversial or radical about advocating justice for Palestinians or supporting BDS,” she told The Electronic Intifada. Sharoni noted that her hiring, promotion and tenure advanced smoothly at all stages of the process.
“My administration’s utter silence on the matter until today,” she added in reference to Ettling’s email, “underscores an alarming trend in higher education of appeasing external political entities by curtailing the free speech and academic freedom of faculty and students who according to administrators work on ‘controversial issues.’”
Sharoni, who is an Israeli citizen and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, doesn’t believe the current campaign is about her. “It is an attempt to undermine and discredit scholarly work on Israel/Palestine that includes calls to hold Israel accountable for its systemic human rights violations and repression,” she said.
But Sharoni has no intention to retreat from her work: “I am going to deal with my sense of insecurity and vulnerability by speaking up even louder on these issues, by refusing to let administrators define support for justice in Palestine as controversial and by letting colleagues who don’t work on these issues know what are the broad implications of the loss of academic freedom.”