University of Illinois Chancellor steps down as judge upholds Salaita lawsuit against school on 1st amendment grounds

US Politics
on 45 Comments

Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita was effectively fired from a tenured position in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2014 for tweets critical of Israel. Salaita subsequently sued the university, arguing it violated his rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

On August 6, a federal court upheld Salaita’s lawsuit on free speech grounds, ruling that the professor’s tweets “implicate every ‘central concern’ of the First Amendment.”

Drawing on complex academic procedures, UIUC had claimed it did not have a contract with Salaita, and thus did not wrongfully fire him. At the time, Salaita had already resigned from a tenured position at Virginia Tech University and was to begin teaching at UIUC in just two weeks. The court rejected this claim, arguing that if it “accepted the University’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist.”

Chancellor Wise’s Resignation

In the midst of this ruling, Phyllis Wise resigned from her positions as UIUC chancellor and vice president, in which she had served since 2011.

Wise faced harsh backlash for overseeing the firing of Salaita. Sixteen of UIUC’s own academic departments voted no confidence in the administration. Leading academic organizations such as the Society of American Law Teachers, the American Historical Association, and the Modern Language Association reproved the university.

More than 5,000 academics from around the country agreed to boycott UIUC, Illinois’ flagship public university, in protest of what they argued constituted an egregious violation of academic freedom. Over three dozen scheduled lectures and conferences were cancelled in protest.

Student activists also protested the university’s decision with walkouts and demonstrations.

Before Salaita sued the school, UIUC’s own Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure submitted a recommendation formally calling on the university to reconsider its decision to fire Salaita. The administration rejected the request.

In June, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted to condemn the UIUC administration for its firing of Salaita, accusing it of infringing on academic freedom and due process.

Under Wise’s supervision, the university spent almost a million dollars hiring two outside law firms in response to Salaita’s litigation. Some of these expenses were paid for with tax dollars.

As part of her resignation agreement, Wise, whose salary was approximately $550,000, will receive an additional $400,000 and a one-year paid sabbatical.

Future Plans

Maria LaHood, Deputy Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is defending Salaita in the lawsuit, explained that the “court’s ruling clears the way for Professor Salaita to seek redress for the wrongs done by the university, including violating his right to speak freely on issues of public concern without being fired.”

The university must finally face the facts of what it has done to Professor Salaita and principles of academic freedom,” LaHood added.

In the suit, Salaita seeks reinstatement at UIUC and monetary relief for the administration’s actions.

The tweets over which Salaita was fired were written during Israel’s summer 2014 bombing of Gaza, codenamed Operation Protective Edge. Approximately 2,300 Palestinians, including over 500 children, were killed in the 51-day attack, close to three-fourths of whom were civilians. The UN; numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International; and independent investigators, such as Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, accused the Israeli military of committing war crimes.

Mondoweiss spoke with Salaita, who said he was “really happy that the judge recognized the importance of faculty autonomy in hiring.”

Salaita said he wants his case to have larger repercussions for other scholars whose academic freedom is under attack. “I hope the judgment plays a positive role in the current battle across the country against managerial suppression,” Salaita stated.

He told Mondoweiss that he is moving to Beirut this week, where he will be teaching at the American University in Beirut.

Salaita believes reinstatement at UIUC “is the optimal outcome for both the university and me,” yet is concerned about the future of his department. “We should remember that the administration’s actions have severely damaged the American Indian Studies Program to the point where it might not even exist in the near future,” Salaita explained. “If there’s a department for me to join, though, I will do so with great honor.”

About Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a journalist and writer based in New York City. His work has been featured in a variety of publications. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton. His website is BenNorton.com.

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45 Responses

  1. just
    August 7, 2015, 4:09 pm

    I’m thrilled about this outcome for Salaita and the future of academics in the US. I wish Professor Salaita, his family, and his students the very best! I am not pleased that Chancellor Wise is being rewarded so handsomely~ it’s rather obscene, imho.

    “Under Wise’s supervision, the university spent almost a million dollars hiring two outside law firms in response to Salaita’s litigation.”

    A million dollars wasted defending the indefensible.

    As I wrote last night:

    “May the nest of vipers that lobbied for his dismissal and treated Professor Salaita so shabbily be exposed next.”

  2. ckg
    August 7, 2015, 4:34 pm

    Perhaps one of our law-savvy commenters can help me understand this ruling better. The court ruled that UIUC violated Salaita’s free speech rights. Is this because the UIUC is part of the State of Illinois? If the university were private instead of public, would free speech rights still apply?

    • lysias
      August 7, 2015, 5:12 pm

      The court refused to dismiss claims of breach of contract and of promissory estoppel. Neither depended on UIUC being a government body.. The court also refused to dismiss a claim of a section 1983 violation of Salaita’s First Amendment rights. That depends on the defendants concerned with this claim being governmental.

      Congratulations, Professor Salaita!

      • W.Jones
        August 7, 2015, 6:46 pm

        Lysias, isn’t it arguable that even if it were not a government body, the university can’t violate free speech in academics?

      • lysias
        August 8, 2015, 3:24 pm

        W. Jones, the complaint was of a section 1983 violation of Salaita’s First Amendment rights. Section 1983, unless I am mistaken, only applies to people operating under color of law.

    • W.Jones
      August 7, 2015, 6:45 pm

      CKG,

      See:
      Free Speech Rights and the Private University
      https://www.thefire.org/liberty-university-free-speech-and-the-private-university/

    • David Doppler
      August 7, 2015, 6:55 pm

      I believe that’s right ckg. The Section 1983 mentioned in the decision and quoted below is a civil rights statute, enacted post-Civil War, and goes to actions taken “under color of state law,” to deprive citizens of their rights, and grants them access to federal court. There does not appear to be any discussion of this issue in the opinion, presumably because UIUC did not deny that it is a state institution and its actions were taken under color of authority granted by the state. As to private universities, the linkage to state action would be weaker and a bigger issue, but sometimes may be met by virtue of substantial relations with, or funding for, the university, under various state statutes or programs.

      42 USC Section 1983 provides: “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”

      • W.Jones
        August 9, 2015, 2:12 am

        OK. I think that the issue that I am thinking of might be that some states have passed laws applying the first amendment (or an analogy to it in the state constitution) to private universities in their state.

    • ckg
      August 7, 2015, 9:36 pm

      Just got home. Huge Traffic jam. I will do first thing in morning.

      • ckg
        August 7, 2015, 9:37 pm

        Thanks lysias, WJones, David.

      • ckg
        August 7, 2015, 9:43 pm

        That comment about the traffic jam is a tad embarrassing. I thought I was texting my wife but I was replying to the Mondoweiss thread on my phone. Now I can’t edit the comment.

      • just
        August 7, 2015, 10:43 pm

        ckg~ no worries!

        It’s actually not bad at all, and it fits. Today, the traffic all over the web has been a traffic jam of epic proportions with normal people quite incensed with US Dems turning against their President, country, and rapprochement with Iran in favor of a benighted and warmongering PM and the apartheid state of violent Occupation.

  3. ivri
    August 7, 2015, 5:07 pm

    All this is not about Salaita anymore. Just a huge warning sign to those who may have had a similar plan, namely turning the classroom into an anti-Israel podium – can cost you your teaching job.

    • Mooser
      August 7, 2015, 5:32 pm

      “Just a huge warning sign to those who may have had a similar plan, namely turning the classroom into an anti-Israel podium – can cost you your teaching job.”

      Obviously, “Irvi”s comment got garbled in Moderation. It happens. It should read:

      ‘Just a huge warning sign to those who may have had a similar plan, namely turning the University Administration into an pro-Israel podium – can cost you your University Chancellorship!’

      There you go “Irvi”, I fixed it for you.

      • just
        August 7, 2015, 6:12 pm

        Thanks, Mooser.

    • MRW
      August 7, 2015, 5:53 pm

      Not anymore.

      And besides, what’s wrong with being anti-Israel?

    • a blah chick
      August 7, 2015, 5:56 pm

      Zionism requires no self awareness at all.

    • Walker
      August 7, 2015, 6:28 pm

      Just a huge warning sign . . . turning the classroom into an anti-Israel podium – can cost you your teaching job.

      The ruling said that University of Illinois’s failure to hire Professor Salaita was a violation of freedom of speech. The “huge warning sign” is that if you “cost a professor his job” due to his views on Israel you could be up for hefty damages.

      • tree
        August 7, 2015, 6:48 pm

        Not to mention that Salaita’s classroom demeanor was never an issue, since he always received the highest praise from his students, whether or not they agreed with his opinions.

        He was attacked because his tweets, made on his own time, were considered “uncivil” by some of Israel’s boosters with money and connections to the University. His tweets were attacked because he criticized Israel and its supporters too vehemently for their tastes and thus they tried to harm him for exercising his academic freedom. A big no-no.

      • just
        August 7, 2015, 6:52 pm

        +1, tree!

      • MHughes976
        August 8, 2015, 4:45 am

        I very much hope that all strongly held opinions will be voiced in classrooms without fear, Zionist ones not excepted. I rather think that this is indeed a victory over the forces of fear and that next time this kind of question arises it will the university authorities who have to pause and reflect rather than press the censorship button..

      • ivri
        August 8, 2015, 10:18 am

        @MH976
        So, if I understand it right, what you want is that only views you hold right will be allowed to be expressed. That approach actually has a name.

      • echinococcus
        August 8, 2015, 10:39 am

        Ibri,

        No, you pretend not to understand at all and personally insulting every reader. Translating things said with unsurpassable clarity into their exact contrary has a name, vile propaganda.

      • MHughes976
        August 8, 2015, 4:27 pm

        Thanks, Echino. The meaning of my words, ivri, was that I wished views of which I disapprove, including Zionist views, to be expressed freely and without fear. Same for views of which I do approve, of course. I hope we’re in agreement here.

      • echinococcus
        August 8, 2015, 6:15 pm

        Hughes,

        Remarkably saintly patience –you manage to continue addressing him.

    • In2u
      August 8, 2015, 8:30 am

      “similar plan, namely turning the classroom into an anti-Israel podium ”

      Give one example where he did that, and no twitter isn’t a classroom unless that’s where you got your education from.

    • Steve Grover
      August 8, 2015, 1:53 pm

      Ivri You are right. This is about law suits caused by coaches who are abusive to players and the possibility of NCAA sanctions. Illinois has a new “Sheriff” in town (Bruce Rauner) who doesn’t put up with financial irresponsibility or Anti Israel B.S. He recently signed anti BDS legislation unanimously passed by both the Illinois State House of Representatives and the Illinois State senate. This is very significant in the context of the Democratic controlled legislature and the Republican Governor being unable or unwilling to compromise to pass a budget.

      • Mooser
        August 8, 2015, 4:35 pm

        “He recently signed anti BDS legislation unanimously passed by both the Illinois State House of Representatives and the Illinois State senate.”

        Hard to see how even the omnipotent State of Illinois can make a law keeping people from not buying something. Or enjoin them from not doing business with Israel.
        But you have been prating about that law, “Stiver”, so maybe you think it’s possible to force people to do business with Israel. That’ll be, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews”, a guy up on charges for not doing business with Israel!

    • lysias
      August 10, 2015, 10:33 am

      Intimidating academics out of taking anti-Israel positions (note, in Salaita’s case not in the classroom) probably was the donors’ intention, but it turned out to be one big Fail.

  4. DoubleStandard
    August 7, 2015, 7:01 pm

    University of Illinois is not responsible for tanking the American Indian Studies Department. First of all, it goes without saying that such a department is utterly useless and does not teach students anything pragmatically wasteful or intellectually worthwhile.

    It is a crime against the Illinois taxpayer that “Dr.” Salaita was going to be paid $85,000 per year to rant against Israel and the United States.

    But what harmed the program most of all was the retaliatory boycott of UI! Yes, that’s right. The UI American Studies department was harmed by its own colleagues who sought to somehow punish Chancellor Wise and the Board for their decision!

    This backfired, as one UI professor wrote about on Savage Minds (an anthropology blog):

    “It is important to note that the boycott has not harmed the vigorous exchanges in the STEM departments and colleges. Instead, the boycott has hit hard on vulnerable humanities and humanistic social sciences, especially those in the interdisciplines such as gender, women’s and ethnic studies. Now the former university system president Bob Easter has forecast new austerity measures, telling us: “Some programs will not survive.””

    http://savageminds.org/2015/07/28/waiting-in-the-neoliberal-university-the-salaita-case-and-the-wages-of-an-academic-boycott/

    • DoubleStandard
      August 7, 2015, 7:18 pm

      Sorry: I meant pragmatically helpful up there :P

      If you could publish this comment, or better yet, just make the correction to the original, I’d be appreciative.

      • just
        August 7, 2015, 7:52 pm

        I say let the Freudian slip stay as it is!

        DoubleStandard- you’ve repeatedly denigrated areas of study before. You have a clear agenda and precious little credibility.

        2 examples:

        “1) Anthropologists boycotting Israel ain’t a surprise. 2) Anthropology is barely — not even barely — a real subject. 3) Israel doesn’t need to collaborate with anthropologists — it needs to collaborate in science and R&D.”

        From the article:

        “‘Our Liberation Will Not Be Complete Until Everyone’s Is’: A report from the American Anthropological Association boycott debate” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/12/liberation-anthropological-association#sthash.GnwssCw6.dpuf

        ~and~

        “The only illusion is that Israel is ever going to lose. You’ll never find more than anti semitic professors of fake subjects like anthropology willing to play the game of denying jews their right to self determination.”

        From the article:

        “The Titanic of the occupation — SodaStream (Update)” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/10/titanic-occupation-sodastream#sthash.3mLhPrgT.dpuf

        So, why are you reading and citing “an anthropology blog”, DS?

      • JLewisDickerson
        August 7, 2015, 8:28 pm

        RE: So, why are you reading and citing “an anthropology blog”, DS? ~ just

        MY REPLY: Because, like his/her screen name suggests, he is Mondoweiss’ preeminent disseminator of DoubleStandards! ! !

        P.S. Meanwhile, back at “comb-over central”, Donald Trump is offering everyone a complimentary rectal examination! ! !

    • RoHa
      August 8, 2015, 3:48 am

      I find myself in sympathy with your general position that some academic departments are a waste of resources and need to be closed.

      I would dump just about everything that has “studies” as part of its name (Cultural Studies, Business Studies, Jewish Studies, Media Studies, etc.), Sociology, Communications (about as phony as you can get), Economics, and anything that involves reference to French Postmodernists.

      Then redirect those resources to double the size of the Philosophy, Chemistry, and Mathematics departments.

      But if we are going to have “studies”, then American Indian Studies should stay. At least they are interesting.

      • DoubleStandard
        August 8, 2015, 11:51 am

        I agree that all those departments should be removed, not just American Indian studies.

    • Boo
      August 8, 2015, 7:19 pm

      Why yes, DoubleStandard, you’re quite right. Our universities have no need whatsoever for a Department of American Indian Studies!

      It’s as if Israeli universities were to establish Departments of Amalekite, Amorite, Perizzite, Canaanite, Hivite and Jebusite Studies. What earthly use could there possibly be for studying civilizations that you did your utmost to wipe out back in the day?!

      • RoHa
        August 9, 2015, 4:27 am

        “What earthly use could there possibly be for studying civilizations that you did your utmost to wipe out back in the day?! ”

        That’s what the History Department is for.

        As I understand it, an American Indian Studies Department would combine study of the languages, religions, oral literature, agricultural and hunting practices, technology, social organization, tribal movements, and perhaps a few other things. But most, if not all, of that counts as history, religion, and linguistics, and we already have departments for those.

        And (in a well organised university) it is perfectly possible to arrange a course of study that involves input from a number of departments. This the normal practice of Australian and American universities.

        As far as I can tell, much the same would be the case with quite a few of the “studies”. The rest are just junk, even if they don’t refer to French Postmodernists.

    • lysias
      August 10, 2015, 10:34 am

      Yes, American university students must not be allowed to learn about the U.S.’s outrageous treatment of the American Indians. They are bound to learn some extremely inconvenient truths.

  5. lonely rico
    August 7, 2015, 8:06 pm

    >DoubleStandard

    … a department … [which] does not teach students anything pragmatically wasteful

    Y’ur right DS, departments which
    FAIL to be PRAGMATICALLY WASTEFUL
    should disappear from the pages of history.

    Bob Easter has forecast new austerity measures, telling us:
    “Some programs will not survive.”

    University of Illinois invests almost a million “hiring two outside law firms in response to Salaita’s litigation” + $950,000 for Wise’s golden parachute.

    Money wisely spent.

    • RoHa
      August 8, 2015, 3:53 am

      That Golden Handshake is slightly larger than the one I received when the last university I worked for decided that one tenured and one part-time philosopher overstrained the budget.

      See if you can guess how much larger.

      • Citizen
        August 8, 2015, 8:40 am

        A lot larger if you were an “adjunct professor”?

  6. piotr
    August 8, 2015, 8:55 am

    A comment on pragmatic usefulness of anthropology etc. Engineering departments can contribute to the design of marvelous gismos that can be used for the national defense and offensive projects. Lack of understanding of the culture in various regions can lead to trillion dollar waste, partially spent on those gismos.

    Just an example pertinent to today’s announcement of Senator Schumer, that seems deficient on “anthropology”. Iran cut the funding for Hamas, which has to rely on Qatar, which is a part of Sunni axis that Israel strives to join. Moreover, Israel may need to rely on Hamas to keep most fanatical Islamists in check (those that are attracted to Islamic State and set bombs near Hamas offices and may do the same in Israel). Note to the Senator: Hamas angle makes no sense. Yes, the deal will not modify Qatar’s behavior, but so what? A few anthropological mistakes and can get another trillion dollar war.

  7. Qualtrough
    August 8, 2015, 12:12 pm

    Made the front page of Fox News!

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/08/08/university-illinois-officials-broke-email-rules-to-hide-scathing-content/?intcmp=latestnews

    “The decision to rescind Salaita’s job offer led to him filing a lawsuit against her and the school, which is still pending. It also prompted bad publicity in the academic world, where some questioned whether his right to free speech had been violated.

    Salaita had written a series of tweets in 2014 complaining about Israeli military action in Gaza. Some university donors complained to Wise that the messages were anti-Semitic.”

  8. manfromatlan
    August 10, 2015, 1:54 pm

    Congratulations to Professor Salaita, and thanks to Mondoweiss for the update!

  9. InTruth
    August 14, 2015, 11:38 pm

    “Maria LaHood, Deputy Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is defending Salaita in the lawsuit …”

    What’s there to defend? Is Wise or someone countersuing Salaita?

    BTW, the level of hasbara in later comments is Impressive.
    Does Phyllis Wise have some familiar pseudonyms?

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