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Professor Terminated Over Tweets on Israel’s Bombing of Gaza Sues University, Seeks Reinstatement

Professor Steven Salaita

Professor Steven Salaita, who was terminated from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) because he sent out tweets through his personal Twitter account that were critical of Israel’s assault on Gaza, has filed a lawsuit against the university. The lawsuit seeks reinstatement so he can “join his colleagues” in the American Indian Studies Department, where he was supposed to be teaching classes.

Salaita had been a faculty member at the English Department of Virginia Tech since 2006. There he had lifetime tenure. In 2013, he was vetted and recruited to become a part of the faculty at the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. According to Salaita, he “accepted an offer from the interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to join the university as a professor with lifetime tenure.”

Wealthy donors, according to documents released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, pressured Chancellor Wise by threatening to stop giving money to the university if he remained a part of the faculty. By August 22, 2014, Wise had written an open letter defending the decision to terminate Salaita from his position.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and Loevy & Loevy in Chicago are representing him in his federal lawsuit alleging violations of his “constitutional right to free speech” as well as violations of “long-cherished principles of academic freedom.” Members of the university’s Board of Trustees as well as other university officials are named as defendants. [PDF]

“The administration’s justification [for Salaita’s termination] is that it was not the content or viewpoint of those tweets that caused his firing but the uncivil tone of those tweets,” Anand Swaminathan, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy declared during a press conference call. “But we will show that justification is unlawful under Supreme Court precedent. We will also show that other arguments that officials have made are plainly pretextual. For example, the charge that Professor Salaita may not be a fair teacher are demonstrated to be false by his stellar teacher evaluations, evidence that was readily available if anyone cared to look.”

Swaminathan continued, “We intend to prove that the true motivation for the university’s hasty decision was pressure from donors. Everything that the university has done since the university announced its decision further confirms that improper motivation. The university says publicly that its decision was not based on donor pressure yet it refuses to comply with the Freedom of Information requests of Professor Salaita and others for communications with donors. If the university is to be believed, why won’t it release that information?”

Salaita intends to take this lawsuit to a jury trial. He also seeks to uncover the identity of donors through the discovery process because the university has allegedly been obstructing the Freedom of Information process by denying Salaita and others access to records that are supposed to be open to public records requests.

During the same press conference call, Salaita stated, “The university’s actions have caused me significant economic, emotional and reputational damage and have taken a significant toll on my family. The firing has left my academic career, the primary mechanism for supporting my family, in shambles. Obtaining a lifetime tenured faculty position at a major American university, a product of years of study and scholarship, represented a pinnacle achievement of my professional career. This ordeal not only cost me that achievement, but I lost my prior tenured position and the University of Illinois’ defamatory attacks have made it impossible for me to obtain a tenured position at another university.”

“I’m now jobless and without a university affiliation my ability to publish articles in academic journals and to present scholarship to colleagues is severely diminished. Without an income source, my wife, young son and I have been forced to move in with my parents and now struggle to make ends meet,” Salaita also shared.

The professor asserted that there was more at stake than what happens to him in his personal life. He does not want this kind of action by the university to become the norm at American universities. He argued, “If the university is able to ignore its own rules and terminate a tenured faculty member for acts of extramural speech, it will have serious negative repercussions on academic freedom, faculty governance, student learning and intellectual exchange.”

In November of last year, an open records lawsuit was filed in Champaign County Court after the university refused to disclose records that are supposed to be made available to the public under state transparency laws. Particularly, Salaita and others have requested records from university officials’ communications with donors.

There is a hearing in that case scheduled in February 13, and it will run concurrent to this lawsuit.

Salaita has no interest in a settlement with the university, despite what they may publicly claim they have to offer.

The filed complaint points out that UIUC’s own Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure “concluded that Salaita’s termination violated principles of academic freedom and violated Professor Salaita’s due process rights.” There also have been “sixteen academic departments within the University,” which have voted “no confidence” in the administration. Over 5,000 academics in the United States have “pledged to boycott the university, resulting in the cancellation of more than three dozen scheduled talks and conferences at the university.”

Altogether, Salaita “seeks equitable and monetary relief for violations of his constitutional rights, including free speech and due process, and for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, tortious interference with contractual and business relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and spoliation.”

A section of the complaint addressing the kind of tweets Salaita has been known to send contends:

…Many of his tweets about Israel and Palestine are intended to challenge prevailing views of the issue and to bring texture to an increasingly politicized and polarized debate. And although Professor Salaita frequently disagrees with American and Israeli state policy in the region, his tweets take aim at state policy, not at any religious or ethnic group. Neither his views nor his tweets are antisemitic. Indeed, Professor Salaita has used his Twitter account to expressly oppose antisemitism. For example, he has tweeted that he is fundamentally opposed to antisemitism, calling it a horror. And when the well-known rapper Macklemore wore a costume that evoked age-old Jewish stereotypes, Salaita took to his Twitter account to criticize the rapper for invoking an image to dehumanize Jewish people for many centuries…

The tweets at issue were sent in July. Amidst Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza, Salaita was informed that Chancellor Wise and the university was going to be monitoring his tweets to “ensure that he did not use university equipment to engage in that type of discourse.” On July 22, a university spokesperson publicly responded to criticism of the university’s decision to hire Salaita and claimed, “We recognize the freedom of speech rights of all of our employees.” The spokesperson also indicated he would begin his employment on August 16.

But on August 2 he was informed in a letter from Wide and Vice President Christophe Pierre that his “appointment” would not be “recommended or submission to the Board of Trustees in September.” There was no further explanation. Salaita was not notified of the reasons for his dismissal.

The complaint notes that defendant and Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Kennedy “twice stated to news publications that he believed the comments of Professor Salaita’s that he reviewed were ‘anti-semitic” and “blatantly anti-semitice”—statements that were unfounded and contrary to available evidence that Kennedy chose not to review.”

“This carelessly-leveled charge defamed Professor Salaita personally and professionally, and falsely caricatured Professor Salaita in contradiction to his nuanced and deeply researched and respected academic scholarship,” the complaint argues.

As Swaminathan maintained during the call with press, Salaita has a “constitutional liberty interest in having some protection for who he is, how he is perceived—He has an interest in that from a constitutional perspective. And what that means is someone who is a government official cannot malign someone, cannot make gross accusations about a person’s character without having done their due diligence.”

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Professor Terminated Over Tweets on Israel’s Bombing of Gaza Sues University, Seeks Reinstatement

Professor Steven Salaita

Professor Steven Salaita, who was terminated from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) because he sent out tweets through his personal Twitter account that were critical of Israel’s assault on Gaza, has filed a lawsuit against the university. The lawsuit seeks reinstatement so he can “join his colleagues” in the American Indian Studies Department, where he was supposed to be teaching classes.

Salaita had been a faculty member at the English Department of Virginia Tech since 2006. There he had lifetime tenure. In 2013, he was vetted and recruited to become a part of the faculty at the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. According to Salaita, he “accepted an offer from the interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to join the university as a professor with lifetime tenure.”

Wealthy donors, according to documents released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, pressured Chancellor Wise by threatening to stop giving money to the university if he remained a part of the faculty. By August 22, 2014, Wise had written an open letter defending the decision to terminate Salaita from his position.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and Loevy & Loevy in Chicago are representing him in his federal lawsuit alleging violations of his “constitutional right to free speech” as well as violations of “long-cherished principles of academic freedom.” Members of the university’s Board of Trustees as well as other university officials are named as defendants. [PDF]

“The administration’s justification [for Salaita’s termination] is that it was not the content or viewpoint of those tweets that caused his firing but the uncivil tone of those tweets,” Anand Swaminathan, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy declared during a press conference call. “But we will show that justification is unlawful under Supreme Court precedent. We will also show that other arguments that officials have made are plainly pretextual. For example, the charge that Professor Salaita may not be a fair teacher are demonstrably by his stellar teacher evaluations, evidence that was readily available if anyone cared to look.”

Swaminathan continued, “We intend to prove that the true motivation for the university’s hasty decision was pressure from donors. Everything that the university has done since the university announced its decision further confirms that improper motivation. The university says publicly that its decision was not based on donor pressure yet it refuses to comply with the Freedom of Information requests of Professor Salaita and others for communications with donors. If the university is to be believed, why won’t it release that information?”

Salaita intends to take this lawsuit to a jury trial. He also seeks to uncover the identity of donors through the discovery process because the university has allegedly been obstructing the Freedom of Information process by denying Salaita and others access to records that are supposed to be open to public records requests. (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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