An alleged comment by an IU assistant professor of political science incited one of his students to post a complaint against him on a political Web site.
The complaint was lodged against assistant professor Abdulkader Sinno, who taught a class on the contemporary Middle East in world politics during the 2003 fall semester.
The complaint was posted in the "Forum for Bias" section of the Students for Academic Freedom Web site, www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org.
"During one class this professor made the comment that the terrorist group Hezbollah, that openly claims responsibility for suicide bombings, is not a terrorist group and is a charitable organization," wrote the student.
Sinno denies ever making such comments.
"It goes without saying that I never made such statements," Sinno said.
Lev Wismer, a senior majoring in political science, took the same class but said she does not recall Sinno making comments supportive of Hezbollah.
"He provided us with information that Hezbollah uses terrorist tactics while consolidating support at home through such things as charity," Wismer said. "Though Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, it is true that it is also a charitable organization, a seldom-known fact."
Aaron Aft, another student in the class, said he disagreed with the way Sinno presented Hezbollah in class.
"Professor Sinno addressed Hezbollah in such a way that, if one was not familiar with the group, one might get the impression that Hezbollah is not a terrorist group," Aft said.
Aft said he did not post the complaint on the SAF Web site but added that he considered addressing his concerns with University officials.
Sophomore Kimberly Ventresca said she distinctly remembers the contents of the lecture the student referred to in his complaint.
"Professor Sinno started the lecture by clarifying that he does not support any terrorist group," Ventresca said. "He spoke about the community service activities that Hezbollah pursues to help students understand how terrorist organizations gain people's sympathy in the Middle East."
Sara Dogan, SAF's spokeswoman, said the posted complaints in the "Forum on Bias" do not go through any selection or verification process.
"We post anything that looks serious," Dogan said. "It takes a lot of time for a student to write up a complaint, and if someone goes through the trouble, we post it."
Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization according to section 212(a) of the Patriot Act of 2001. Under the act, a person endorsing or espousing terrorist activity may face legal penalties.
"This student obviously has no idea about the legal consequences of his action," Ventresca said.
Dogan said SAF does not take legal responsibility for the comments posted on its Web site.
"SAF is merely a free expression site, and if some complaint is not true, the responsibility lies with the student," Dogan said.
Sinno consulted his lawyer and asked students to voluntarily sign an affidavit stating that he did not endorse Hezbollah at any point during the class.
Sinno cites a previous instance where complaints filed on a similar forum had unanticipated repercussions.
"The professors who were listed on Campus Watch's site had their e-mails swamped with hate mail, a few received death threats," he said.
Brian Palmer, professor at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences who also has been listed on the forum, is critical of the content on the SAF Web site.
"This is an effort by the political right to put pressure on professors who think independently," Palmer said. "The tone and style of this Web site is reminiscent of the McCarthy era when a segment of the American society became intolerant of dissent," Palmer said, referring to Sen. Joe McCarthy's witch hunt and blacklisting of alleged communist sympathizers in the United States during the 1950s.
Sinno said the Web site does not contribute to academic freedom.
"Instead of providing a well-researched narrative, teaching becomes restricted," Sinno said. "You have to constantly worry about not offending ideologues."
Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history at University of California Santa Barbara, is another professor listed on the forum. Lichtenstein said he agrees with Sinno and believes the name SAF is a misnomer.
"This Web site is actually Students for Administrative Coercion, since what they really want is to force departments to hire conservative faculty," he said. "This forum is designed to be intimidating for faculty members and meant to attract attention from state legislators, boards of trustees and conservative members of the media."
Palmer said that Web sites like SAF can have a large influence on public universities.
"It is easier for a small pressure group that does not represent a wide body of opinion to have a greater influence on a public university board or legislators who control the funding," he said.
Lee Kaplan, west coast coordinator for SAF, said the Web site is intended for the public and the entire educational sphere but added that SAF prefers students dealing with complaints through their own universities.
"SAF's aim is to eliminate the problem of political partisanship in universities," Dogan said. "We believe that political content is inappropriate in any class except where it is an integral component of the curriculum."
Stephen Groening, a graduate student who teaches film studies at the University of Minnesota and who also can be found on the forum, said he disagrees with Dogan. Groening said it is important for students and teachers to discuss contemporary issues.
"Students at a university want to hear different points of view on current affairs, and there is always a tension between those who want to learn and those who wants their beliefs confirmed," Groening said.
Wismer said although he did not agree with everything Sinno presented about the Middle East, he added, "We are lucky to have someone like professor Sinno who has the courage to open up a very controversial subject to debate."