Salaita Sues University of Illinois
by Stephen Lendman
Previous articles discussed Professor Steven Salaita academic lynching. Hired by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to a tenured faculty position.
Fired for criticizing Israeli aggression on Gaza. Supporting Palestinian rights. Chancellor Phyllis Wise lied claiming otherwise.
At the time, Columbia University Professor Bruce Robbins called his firing “an outrage to anyone who cares about academic freedom or simple human decency.”
“In punishing him for speaking up by taking away his job, Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy, among others.”
On January 29, Salaita filed suit in federal court. Represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Chicago civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy.
CCR saying “Salaita’s termination, which functions as a penalty for his speech on an issue of public concern, constitutes ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ a violation of the First Amendment, and also threatens academic freedom by punishing a faculty member for speaking as a citizen on a critical issue.”
Salaita’s suit charges violation of his First Amendment rights. Other constitutional rights violations. Breach of his employment contract.
Dissent in America is endangered. Criticizing Israel is verboten. Virtually assuring academic lynching.
A likely career-ender for professors deserving praise for their forthrightness and integrity.
Saliata was a tenured professor. He signed an October 2013 UIUC contract. Resigning his Virginia Tech position to do it.
Weeks before classes began, he was told he no longer had a job. Among other reasons cited was a disingenuous claim about lacking Board of Trustees approval.
Interim College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean, Brian Ross, wrote Salaita’s job offer letter, saying:
“The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a wonderfully supportive community, and it has always taken a high interest in its newcomers.”
“I feel sure that your career can flourish here, and I hope earnestly that you will accept our invitation.”
After his firing, CCR Legal Director Baher Azmy wrote Chancellor Wise, saying in part:
“The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) writes to express our considerable alarm about the decision of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to terminate the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita at the University based on the content of his constitutionally-protected speech critical of Israeli government practices in recent weeks.”
“Your seemingly unprecedented decision to terminate the appointment of a tenured professor on such grounds violates Professor Salaita’s clearly established constitutional rights as well as elementary principles of academic freedom to which the University purportedly subscribes.”
“We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your unlawful course of action.”
“An attempt by university officials to repress or penalize speech on a matter of public concern such as Israel/Palestine because of disagreement with its message is impermissible ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ a serious First Amendment violation.”
CCR cited Texas v. Johnson. Justice William Brennan wrote the majority opinion, saying:
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
CCR criticized Chancellor Wise for “assert(ing) that the manner in which Professor Salaita expressed his views was uncivil or harsh or that the substance or style of his communication would offend his audience.”
“The Supreme Court has never accepted a desire to shelter offended listeners from harsh messages, recognizing that powerful and provocative speech is often necessarily ‘vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasant.’ “
“This recognition embodies “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.”
“Beyond the First Amendment violation committed here, the University has betrayed elementary principles of academic freedom which naturally extend protections to faculty members’ ability to ‘speak or write as citizens,’ and which must be free from
‘institutional censorship or discipline.’ “
“Your actions have inflicted serious damage not just on one scholar; they have set your University on an unsustainable course charted against elementary constitutional principles.”
“We strongly urge you to retract this precipitous decision and reaffirm your commitment to academic freedom and the right of members of the University of Illinois community to engage vocally and vociferously on matters of great public concern.”
Open letters from at least 10 academic organizations expressed strong support for Salaita’s rights. Along with seven or more public statements from academic organizations.
Letters from Palestine Solidarity Legal Support. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Chicago. The National Lawyers Guild-Chicago.
Numerous faculty-supportive letters. Petitions and academic boycott announcements backing him.
Last September, the Chicago Tribune
published Salaita’s op-ed headlined “Steven Salaita: U of I destroyed my career.”
Calling his UIUC tenured faculty position appointment “the pinnacle of (his) academic career.”
Involving “numerous interviews with faculty” members. “(A)n intensive review of (his) scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.”
Dean Brian Ross’ employment offer followed. Rescinded a few weeks before scheduled classes “without any warning” or legitimate explanation.
Salaita called it “devastating to (his) family…(A) grave threat to faculty and students everywhere.”
“(A)nathema” to academic and speech freedoms. Unjustifiable tactics “used to silence faculty and students on campuses across the country for speaking in support of Palestinian human rights.”
The disturbing implications of his sacking go “far beyond (his) job prospects,” he explained.
Last November, UIUC denied Loevy & Loevy’s FOIA lawsuit on behalf of Salaita. Seeking emails, other correspondence and records pertaining to his firing.
Calling the request “unduly burdensome.” An unjustifiable excuse to withhold information it wants suppressed.
In late December, UIUC’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) released a report.
Saying rescinding Salaita’s appointment violated “existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects…”
Accusing him of incivility “is not consistent with the University’s guarantee of freedom of political speech.”
CAFT recommended his candidacy be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for review of his scholarship by a committee of qualified academic experts.
With Salaita provided full opportunity to respond to any proposed findings of professional unfitness before CAFT concluded its proceedings.
On January 15, UIUC rejected CAFT’s recommendations. On January 29, CCR/Loevy & Loevy’s lawsuit followed. Salaita seeks reinstatement. Unspecified monetary damages.
Other restitution for violating his constitutional rights, breach of contract, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” He explained saying:
“My primary motivation in bringing this suit is to join my colleagues in the American Indian Studies program and begin teaching.”
“I do not want (UIUC’s) illegal actions to become the norm in US universities.”
Suing was a last resort. After exhausting other alternatives. Contesting UIUC’s “abuse of power.” Despite Salaita’s “stellar academic credentials…”
Defendants include 11 UIUC trustees and officials. Including board chairman Robert Easter, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and former US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
Saying Wise destroyed evidence related to his case. Charging Defendants with conspiring illegally to deprive Salaita of his constitutional and UIUC contractual rights.
Firing him for “political speech challenging prevailing norms. (T)rampling on long-cherished principles of academic freedom.”
Lawlessly causing him “severe economic, emotional and reputational damage.”
Unnamed “John Doe donors” are targeted. For injecting themselves into UIUC’s hiring process. Threatening to withhold future donations unless Salaita was fired.
He said he may refuse an out-of-court settlement because “we don’t want a type of precedence to be established wherein…people can be fired for their speech.”
“It’s not as simple as my personal circumstance,” he added. His separate lawsuit against UIUC for violating Illinois’ open records law remains ongoing. Its next hearing is scheduled in February.
His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”
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