The head of the New York Civil Liberties Union said she fears that Columbia's investigation into complaints by students against anti-Israel scholars will "turn into an inquisition into the political views of professors."
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York State affiliate of the ACLU, also urged Columbia in a statement last week not to allow critics outside the university to "interfere with academic freedom."
The NYCLU suggested in its statement that the complaints have been blown out of proportion because of the context of the Mideast conflict.
"It is clear that this controversy would not have acquired the attention it received if it were simply about the rudeness of professors or their intolerance of other points of view," the statement says. In an interview last night, Ms. Lieberman said: "While there may be other issues at play here, there is clearly a political agenda. The attacks on professors are clearly motivated by politics." She added: "Political disagreement is being conflated with bias."
Ariel Beery, a Columbia senior who has strongly criticized anti-Israel Columbia professors for their treatment of some students, said the complaints are no less legitimate because they relate to the Middle East conflict.
"Racism is a climate of ideology, too, as is homophobia," Mr. Beery said, drawing an analogy. "Just because racism and homophobia are part of a prevailing ideological environment doesn't make racist and homophobic remarks by a professor justifiable."
Ms. Lieberman and other NYCLU members met two weeks ago with Columbia students who have made allegations against professors.
"It's wrong to accept these allegations at face value," she said last night.
"The free exchange of ideas in the university doesn't mean that every classroom is a forum for political debate," she said.
Several members of the City Council and one New York City congressman, Anthony Weiner, have publicly called on Columbia to hold its scholars accountable for their actions toward students in the classroom. Mr. Weiner said Columbia should fire one of its faculty members, assistant professor Joseph Massad, for his "displays of anti-Semitism."
About 10 Columbia students have publicly come forward with complaints against five faculty members in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures. The complaints have attracted national attention from Jewish leaders and others concerned that the professors are using the classroom as a platform to preach hatred against Israel. The accused Columbia professors denied they have mistreated students and said they have the right to speak critically of Israel in the classroom. Among the complaints that have attracted the most attention include:
* A student who was in Mr. Massad's spring 2002 course concerning the Middle East conflict, Deena Shanker, said Mr. Massad screamed at her and ordered her to leave his classroom if she continued to defend Israeli military action.
* A recent graduate who majored in political science and Arabic, Aharon Horwitz, said when he asked an unnamed professor of Arabic how to use an Arabic word meaning "prevents," the professor offered the example, "Israel prevents ambulances from going into refugee camps."
* A Columbia graduate, Scott Schonfeld, who was a student in Hamid Dabashi's course on Middle Eastern cinema in spring 2002, said the professor canceled class on Israel's independence day so that the students could attend an anti-Israel demonstration. He said teaching assistants wearing black armbands urged students who showed up for the class to attend the protest.
Some complaints were recorded in a film called "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by a pro-Israel group, which triggered Columbia's investigation.