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Volokh Conspiracy

ASA conference keeps out reporters, media focused on Israel or Jewish issues


The American Studies Association is apparently unhappy about the barrage of press coverage, none of it sympathetic, of their zig-zagging roll-back of their Israel boycott, which played out in part here at Volokh.

Witness the extraordinary press pass policy the ASA has adopted for its annual conference, to be held in the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles on Nov. 6-9. The 612-word policy does two things. First, it restricts media access to journalists or publications with a "history" of reporting on "issues related to education." Second, it makes even those journalists go through an onerous process of proving their eligibility—including sending "evidence" in the form of recent prior bylined writings on education.

The process is as complicated, arbitary and daunting as getting a press pass for the North Korean Politburo meeting, except that the ASA professes to be a progressive organization devoted to the exchange and dissemination of ideas.

The whole policy is too long to quote here, but I recommend you look at it to appreciate its grand, reticulated weirdness. Here is a little sample:

Supporting Documentation Required:

1. A copy of a recognized proof of identity with photo-driver's license, passport, identity card, etc.

2. One of the following:
b. Print reporter must submit at least one by-lined article published within the past four months and a copy of the publication; for those writers who have yet to have a by-lined publication on the topic of higher education the writer must submit at minimum two articles within the last year on the topic of education from the print media in which the work will be published. The writer should also include a copy of the publication.
e. Online media (Subject to all other criteria, online media may include news outlets, blogs, vlogs and others) must meet the following requirements, in addition to those above:

i. The website must belong to a recognized media organization and have a specific, verifiable street address and a telephone number.

ii. The website must have at least 60% original news content or commentary or analysis, including coverage of higher education.

This is all about the boycott. The ASA has not had these requirements for past meetings, and other academic associations have the most general requirements for press passes, or none at all.

So for sure I won't be covering the ASA, nor will Legal Insurrection, which has assiduously tracked and criticized the boycott, and the massively negative reaction to it from the greater academic world, since its beginnings.

But more importantly, it seems like the ASA is trying to substantively affect the coverage it gets. Clearly, the ASA does not want people coming to the conference to write about the boycott, and monitor its (un)enforcement. To that end, the policy excludes journalists most interested in the issue—those writing about Israel or Jewish issues, or about civil rights issues. [Those are the only reporters aside from education ones who would likely be interested in the ASA conference, and thus perhaps the entire exclusionary effect of the policy falls on them.] The vast majority of the coverage thus far has come from reporters working non-education beats.

One might think that coverage by higher education reporters (which can also be eliminated under the policy) might be more sympathetic as they have a long-term relationship with the group. I do wonder whether anyone has ever had reason to cover ASA meetings before the boycott.

Of course, the ASA is well within its rights—it could have entirely excluded journalists. That would have looked much better than creating a byzantine mechanism for cherry-picking those who can attend. It is also understandable that they do not want their conference to be constantly under the microscope for evidence of national origin discrimination. Of course, the best way to avoid that would have been to not adopt a discriminatory policy.

While the ASA's original boycott was discriminatory, and possibly illegal, the press policy is something that is arguably worse for a scholarly organization: ridiculous, heavy-handed, and self-parodying. This is an organization whose statement this week defending themselves from discrimination charges boasted of its "spirit of openness and transparency," and described the conference as a "broad and inclusive event."

The point is that the boycott, or non-boycott, has taken over the ASA, leading them to adopt policies that should be embarrassing to its membership.

In the meantime, the Chronicle of Higher Education features an essay that claims the ASA boycott has resulted in concrete discrimination against Israeli scholars (an Arab student, as it happens), not just institutions.