TAMPA, Fla. — Sami Al-Arian leans back on a carved-wood Egyptian couch and squirms as he tries to explain why in 1991 he declared "Death to Israel."
That comment and several others have come back to haunt him in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Officials at the University of South Florida, where Mr. Al-Arian is a tenured professor of computer science, have started proceedings to fire him — essentially for being a fiery Palestinian activist who embarrasses them.
The result is a case that is less about Professor Al-Arian than it is about ourselves: what kind of universities we desire, how much dissent we dare tolerate and how we treat minorities in times of national stress.
The point is not whether one agrees with Professor Al-Arian, a rumpled academic with a salt-and-pepper beard who is harshly critical of Israel (and also of repressive Arab countries) — but who also denounces terrorism, promotes inter-faith services with Jews and Christians, and led students at his Islamic school to a memorial service after 9/11 where they all sang "God Bless America."
No, the larger point is that a university, even a country, becomes sterile when people are too intimidated to say things out of the mainstream. Indeed, that is precisely why major Arab countries are in dreadful shape.
The tempest began at the end of September, when Bill O'Reilly invited Mr. Al-Arian on his Fox News show and virtually accused him of being a terrorist. People here in Tampa were horrified to learn of a terrorist in their midst and flooded the university with complaints and a few threats. (Florida has the most pious death threats: a couple of them invoked God and one ended by saying "God Bless!")
The university then started a process to fire Mr. Al-Arian. The reason was not Mr. Al-Arian's comments themselves (they were about a dozen years old, after all) but the disruptive impact and security risks of having a polarizing figure on campus. Alumni contributions dropped, for example.
Of course, the same logic could on some campuses justify the ouster of a gay professor — or, a few decades ago, a black professor. And on campuses at the other end of the spectrum, that logic would bar born-again Christians who speak out against abortion or affirmative action.
Mr. Al-Arian has often been controversial during his 27 years in the United States. But three exhaustive studies of his conduct have found no evidence of wrongdoing. Most recently, an immigration judge, Kevin McHugh, issued a 56-page report in October 2000 concluding that "there is no evidence before the court that demonstrates that" two Muslim organizations run by Mr. Al-Arian were fronts for Palestinian terrorists.
The judge added: "To the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that [one] was a reputable and scholarly research center and [the other] was highly regarded."
After 9/11, President Bush went out of his way to reach out to Muslims and shield them from abuse. I couldn't help but smile at the effusiveness of Mr. Bush's praise for Islam as a religion of peace; it sounded almost as if he were ready to convert.
Yet I was also deeply impressed. That magnanimity marked how much we had grown since World War II, when our first instinct was to round up Japanese-Americans. President Bush might have a word with his brother Jeb, who has endorsed the firing of Professor Al-Arian.
In the course of poking around the issue of academic freedom here at the University of South Florida, I came across a similar case in 1962. A state committee was searching the universities for the witches of that era: atheists, leftists, gays, feminists.
A young literature scholar here in Tampa, Sheldon Grebstein, was suspended when he assigned his students an essay about Beat literature that included profanity. Professor Grebstein fled some months later for the free world.
I was curious about what he would think, so I tracked him down. It turned out that Mr. Grebstein had been president of the State University of New York at Purchase and is now at the Westchester Holocaust Commission.
"I despise anyone who would say, `Death to Israel,' " Professor Grebstein said. "But if he wants to stand on a ladder and say that, he should be able to. And there should be no penalty from his employer."
He added: "Any university that wants to be first-rate — you measure its quality by measuring how much dissent it is willing to tolerate."