MIAMI - In a rare legal move, the University of South Florida Wednesday asked a state judge if firing a professor who it says may have ties to terrorists would infringe on his free-speech rights.
The university's president, Judy Genshaft, had been expected to fire the tenured associate professor, Sami Al-Arian, this week and was bracing for a long and expensive legal battle.
Instead, the state university in Tampa made a pre-emptive strike to ask the courts to shield them from litigation.
Al-Arian and his brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar, have been under investigation for years.Their cases have been watched by civil libertarians concerned that constitutional freedoms are eroding as authorities battle terrorism.
"Federal authorities have stated that Dr. Al-Arian remains under active criminal investigation for alleged ties to terrorist activities," Genshaft said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit and defending the university's right to fire him.
Al-Arian's attorney, Robert McKee, did not respond to calls for comment Wednesday.
The Palestinian professor of computer science has been on paid leave since he appeared on a Fox television program, "The O'Reilly Factor," shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The university initially said it was for his protection as well as the school's after tapes were aired on the program showing Al-Arian, when he was younger, shouting in Arabic, "Let us damn America! Let us damn Israel! Let us damn their allies until death!" In December, the university filed notice that it intended to fire the professor, who has taught in the College of Engineering since 1986. The American Association of University Professors followed with an announcement that it would censure the university if the professor is fired, which can make it difficult to attract and hire faculty.
Al-Arian's trouble with federal authorities spans back seven years when the FBI raided the professor's home and office seeking evidence that he and al-Najjar raised money for the terrorist groups Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A federal grand jury brought no charges, but federal authorities have said the investigation is still open.
Al-Najjar was imprisoned for three years on secret evidence in 1997. He was released after the courts ruled his detention unconstitutional. He was arrested again and has been held without criminal charges since November 2001. He is scheduled to be deported to an unnamed Arab country in the next week, according to INS officials.