University of Michigan Unconstitutionally Punishes Professor Over Boycott

Over the last few weeks, two instructors at the University of Michigan have declined to write recommendations for students to study abroad at Israeli academic institutions that discriminate against Palestinian students, in line with their support for the academic boycott for Palestinian rights.

The Detroit News revealed that tenured Professor John Cheney-Lippold was sanctioned with loss of his earned sabbatical for two years, no merit increase for the academic year, and could be further sanctioned if his politics guided future decisions about recommendation letters. The University has declared that “A student’s academic merit should be the primary guide for determining whether to write a letter.”

A University of Michigan doctoral student, Lucy Peterson, has also declined to write a recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad at an Israeli academic institution. Earlier this week, she was questioned by the administration. Peterson also faces potential discipline.

Senior Staff Attorney Radhika Sainath said, “As a public university, the University of Michigan may not compel speech – plain and simple. Contrary to the University’s position, instructors have the right to decline to write letters for a number of reasons, including their political views about institutions complicit in human rights abuses. There is no First Amendment exception for Israel. In singling out supporters of Palestinian rights for censorship, the University of Michigan is violating free speech and academic freedom principles to which it is legally bound.”

Professor Cheney-Lippold is being represented by local counsel in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Palestine Legal is advising Lucy Peterson.