by Nicole Rosen
The American Studies Association is being sued for hijacking educational organization for personal political purposes
Washington, D.C., April 20 – A group of distinguished professors and longtime members of the American Studies Association (ASA) today announced that they are suing ASA for its boycott of Israel. The lawsuit charges that ASA’s blatant politicization of an academic association violates District of Columbia (D.C.) law governing nonprofit organizations.
“Until a handful of zealots appropriated our learned society, the ASA was the leading organization for the study of American culture,” stated Professor Simon Bronner, one of the plaintiffs. “Yet in 2013, a handful of anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists aggressively steered the ASA to an organization of social change pushing a narrow political agenda.”
According to the plaintiffs, the boycott adopted by ASA in December 2013 was a concerted effort by a small number of BDS activists, including founding members of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), who used their leadership positions in ASA to make anti-Israel activism the central focus of the Association. ASA’s stated mission has nothing to do with boycotting a foreign nation and thus the suit alleges its adoption violates the law that governs nonprofit corporations.
At the time the boycott was initiated, ASA’s constitution stated that “[t]he object of the association [is] the promotion of the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication…about American culture in all its diversity and complexity.” The suit charges that a boycott of another country is outside the scope of ASA’s charter and is the antithesis of promoting knowledge. ASA’s constitution goes on to say that ASA’s goal is “the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies.” According to the complaint, the boycott does the exact opposite since it separates an entire country and its academics.
In addition, as a tax-exempt nonprofit, ASA reports annually to the IRS. In its IRS documents, the Association continues to describe its mission as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” with its “exempt purpose – advancing the Study of American Culture.” Plaintiffs allege that the academic boycott of Israel is clearly outside of this stated mission and purpose.
The four plaintiffs are American studies professors Simon Bronner, Michael Rockland, Michael Barton, and Charles Kupfer. Two are recipients of the ASA award for outstanding abilities and achievement. One is a founding member of a respected American Studies department and another is a member of ASA’s governing council and the editor of the Encyclopedia of American Studies. After numerous unsuccessful attempts since 2013 to address the matter within the Association, the professors filed this suit as a last resort to return the ASA to the academically-focused organization it has been for 60 years.
The lawsuit alleges ASA is in violation of the D.C. Non-Profit Corporation Act, which requires that an organization operate only within the provisions of its charter. Under D.C. law, the charter is a contract intended to protect members from those who seek to coopt a nonprofit for purposes outside the boundaries of its charter.
“This appears to be a clear example of a small group misappropriating assets raised for an agreed upon purpose and illegally using the organization to advance a completely separate and personal agenda,” stated University of California Berkeley Law School Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, a renowned corporate law expert who served as an expert adviser to the litigation group representing the plaintiffs.
Northwestern Pritzker Law School Professor Eugene Kontorovich, a recognized expert in constitutional and international law who also served as an expert adviser to the litigation group added, “To be clear, this is not about silencing or stopping criticism of Israel, or in any way discouraging it. It is about non-profit corporations abiding by their own rules.”
In addition to violating DC law, the lawsuit reveals the defendants attempted to prevent informed discourse. In fact, no research performed with scholarly vigor was presented and the ASA refused to circulate or post to the ASA’s website several letters opposing the resolution, including one signed by approximately 70 ASA members and another opposing the resolution from eight former ASA presidents.
The plaintiffs and many ASA members, including 12 winners of the outstanding ASA Mary C. Turpie Award, raised objections to ASA’s leadership but were ignored. At least two ASA chapters refused to honor the boycott and many ASA members resigned and stopped donating. In addition, the esteemed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and 134 members of Congress condemned ASA for its boycott. As the New York Times reported, ASA “has gone from relative obscurity to prominence as a pariah…its experience serving as a cautionary tale for other scholarly groups….”
In 2014, the Royal Institute of British Architects endorsed an anti-Israel boycott. However, after lawyers warned the Institute’s action was outside its mission and therefore illegal, the policy was rescinded. Institute leaders acknowledged the “motion was beyond the powers of council” and the Institute’s president admitted, “We got it wrong.”
“Academic associations should think twice before abusing their missions and betraying the lawful purposes for which they were established in favor of the personal political agendas of their noisiest and most politicized activist members,” stated Kenneth L. Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and one of the attorneys on the case. “This case stands for the simple proposition that nonprofit corporations must pursue the lawful purposes for which they are established, for which they receive nonprofit status, and for which they raise charitable contributions” added Jerome Marcus of Marcus & Auerbach LLC, lead counsel to the plaintiffs.
The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law is a non-profit organization designed to protect the civil and human rights of the Jewish people, and promote justice for all. Specifically, LDB combats anti-Semitism on college and university campuses through legal advocacy, public policy education and research. It is not affiliated with the Massachusetts University, the Kentucky law school, or any of the other institutions that share the name and honor the memory of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.