10 Past Presidents of the MLA Oppose Resolution 2017-1: “Boycotts are protected speech under U.S. freedom of expression laws”

The following statement was posted on April 12, 2017 on the MLA Delegate Assembly Resolution 2017-1 comments site. A similar letter was sent to the Executive Council of the MLA protesting the ill-considered resolution, which seeks to repress the free speech of MLA members who endorse boycotts.

#Vote No on Resolution 2017-1/Protect Free Speech

Click this link to VOTE NO on Resolution 2017-1. 

Voting on MLA Resolutions: April 19-June 1

To Our Fellow MLA Members

From:Mary Ann Caws
Margaret Ferguson
Roland Greene
Marianne Hirsch
Linda Hutcheon
Sylvia Molloy
Catherine Porter
Mary Louise Pratt
Sidonie Smith
Domna Stanton
Past presidents of the MLA

As former presidents of the Association, we wish to comment on Resolution 2017-1. We think that it misrepresents the MLA’s mission, defining the Association’s role in an erroneous, narrow way that directly contradicts past and present practice. We also think that this resolution unduly restricts the membership’s ability to act in the future.

The opening claim of Resolution 2017-1, that “endorsing the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature,” misrepresents the MLA’s stated mission and its practice over many decades. As formulated in 1883, and with minor changes in the document on our current website, the MLA’s mission is two-pronged: to promote teaching and research on language and literature, and to support and protect the intellectual and professional lives of those who perform this work. The Delegate Assembly was born from debates about whether our association should speak out against the U.S. government’s conduct in the Vietnam War. Resolutions 2012-2 and 2012-3 are just two recent examples of resolutions that place our work as teachers and scholars into broader political contexts. As an organization with members from over a hundred countries, the MLA regularly makes statements and ratifies resolutions that protest against violations of academic freedom across the world. Just this last year, the Executive Council spoke out against the repression of academics in Turkey. The Emergency Resolution passed at the January 2017 convention “to endorse the American Association of University Professors’ statement ’Higher Education after the 2016 Election’” directly addresses and criticizes the incoming administration of Donald Trump. The narrow interpretation of the MLA’s mission stated in Resolution 2017-1 is incompatible with MLA’s purpose and its past and current practice, including the Emergency Resolution passed in the same meeting.

Apart from mission statements and resolutions, MLA members study literature and culture within political and geopolitical frames. A glance at any convention program corroborates this fact. Recent presidential themes have included “Vulnerable Times” (2014), “Negotiating Sites of Memory” (2015), “Literature and its Publics” (2016), “Boundary Conditions“ (2017), and, in 2018, “#States of Insecurity.” Current president Diana Taylor’s description of the 2018 theme explicitly states that “The academy cannot be separate from the political, economic, and ideological turmoil of our time: #States of Insecurity calls on academia to uphold its role as a place of critical and historical reflection, inquiry, and intervention.”

In our view, Resolution 2017-1 closes off dialogue and debate in an unprecedented way. Boycotts are protected speech under U.S. freedom of expression laws; this resolution forecloses present and, more seriously, future discussion. In this time of crisis, as in others, our members look to the MLA for leadership and advocacy on the place of their teaching and research in the world. Categorical restrictions on our future ability to exercise these responsibilities needlessly compromise the organization’s integrity.

We ask fellow MLA members to give serious consideration to the concerns laid out above as you decide how to vote on Resolution 2017-1.

Posted 12 Apr 1:51 pm by Margaret W. Ferguson