President Steven B. Sample
Office of the President
University of Southern California
University Park Campus
Los Angeles, California 90089

by Mail and Fax (213-821-1342)

Dear President Sample:
On behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of over 50 national non-profit organizations united in defense of free expression, I would like to express our deep concern over the administrative removal of several hadith from a student organization’s website in response to a call from the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  The University administration justified the removal by claiming that the hadith violated USC’s “Principles of Community,” which ban the denigration of “another human being on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, etc.”

The hadith, reports of the sayings and actions of Muhammad, were intended to provide instruction in observance of the teachings of the Quran. They represent a historically important text, and their historical and religious significance is not diminished by the fact that they contain material that may be offensive to some.  Excerpts from documents associated with many religious and belief systems, especially taken out of context, may be considered “denigrating” to someone.  Many historical documents of a non-religious nature also contain text which could offend certain groups.  Expurgating historical documents on this basis is educationally unsound: whatever we may think of the words and the opinions of the past, they exist. The purpose of a University is not to censor history of its unpleasant aspects, but to explain it to students to enhance their understanding of history and the socio-political and religious context in which speech, which is offensive by contemporary standards, was understood and functioned.

It does not help that USC reportedly intends to post the hadith as codified by Imam Bukhari in the 9th Century.  Rather, such an action will be historically inaccurate and misleading, since this will omit three other versions of the hadith now on the MSA website.  Selectively publishing one version of the hadith and not others create the misimpression that only one version exists, which is simply inaccurate.  It cannot be simply a coincidence that the hadith expunged from the MSA website were all in the version of Imam Muslin and not in Imam Bukhari’s version. 

Of equal importance is the students’ freedom to post a wide variety of ideas on their organizational websites. The University does not endorse the content posted by various groups on its server any more than it endorses every idea expressed in a classroom or every book in the library.  In fact, the USC Muslim Students Association website, where the hadith were published, bears a disclaimer: “The University of Southern California does not screen or control the content on this website and thus does not guarantee the accuracy, integrity, or quality of such content. All content on this website is provided by and is the sole responsibility of the student organization from which such content originated, and such content does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the University administration or the Board of Trustees.”

Aside from damaging its reputation, the University’s trampling of the principles of academic freedom in this case is likely to have other long-term negative effects.  Expunging texts posted on a student organization’s website because of external complaints will inevitably encourage others to comb through USC hosted websites and request the removal of other material that different groups and individuals find objectionable.  Consider the numbers of historical documents offensive, by today’s standards, to women and ethnic and racial minorities; What about information about homosexuality or abortion that some Catholic and Christian groups find offensive?  Would a website devoted to pacifist ideas offend the campus ROTC?  The actions taken in removing historical material from the MSA site raise a host of disturbing questions about what the University considers denigrating, but clearly suggests the potential to chill expression not only on the sites of student organizations, but also on class websites and faculty pages.

It is reasonable to embrace “Principles of Community” to assure equal educational opportunity and to protect students from direct verbal assaults.  However, the line is crossed from promoting education to inhibiting it when a university uses these principles to censor opinions, texts or images someone may find uncomfortable or offensive.  When you put community principles in the service of censoring religious and historical texts, you undermine those very principles together with the very basis of academic life: the free inquiry into ideas.

USC’s removal of several lines of text from an old religious document distorts the notion of community principles and threatens the academic freedom of inquiry and exchange of ideas.  We urge you to restore the expunged hadith to their original position among thousands of others and to make sure the principle of academic freedom extends to every academic activity, whether it is classroom discussion, art exhibitions, or student organizations’ websites.

Svetlana Michtcheva, Ph.D.