By Jillian York, Director for International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Plenty has been written on the unceremonious “un-hiring” of Steven Salaita, a professor who gave up tenure at Virginia Tech to take a more suitable position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The revocation of Salaita’s job offer—a day before he was set to start and after he had already uprooted his family to move across the country—because of his outspoken criticism of Israel on Twitter has been written about from every imaginable perspective, from that of academic freedom and the ways in which neoliberal labor practices harm workers, to the Big Money takeover of public universities.
One area that has remained largely unaddressed is the fact that in addition to being an academic freedom issue, this is also in many ways a question of “Internet freedom.” Salaita’s commentary largely took place on Twitter, an inherently public and easily searchable platform which has nearly 300 million active users around the world. In contrast to, for example, ephemeral remarks made at a conference of a few hundred people, Salaita’s tweets are both accessible to all and archived.
Discussions around Internet freedom often tend toward digital dualism—that is, the tendency to separate the “real world” from the “online world”. But while activists pushing for greater online freedom may view the Internet as unique in its capability to connect disparate groups, governments and other repressive actors take advantage of that to impose harsher penalties on online speech than they might on speech that occurs elsewhere. So while the University of Illinois has for years played host to a retired professor who has spoken at white supremacist events (but who is absent from Twitter), a professor whose outspokenness takes place online is somehow seen as a bigger threat.
While the tweets that led to the rescinding of Salaita’s job offer were brought to Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s attention by alumni of the university—as more than 300 pages of documents released by the News Gazette show—it appears that the university itself later took on the role of spy, judge, and jury. Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian studies program that Salaita was meant to join, stated in Salaita’s September hearing that Wise had met with him in late July, asking him to tell Salaita that “his social media presence would be monitored.”
It seems that the university wasn’t the only one watching. Cary Nelson, the former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and a University of Illinois professor who has been outspoken in favor of Salaita’s firing, admitted to the Electronic Intifada that he too had been monitoring Salaita’s Twitter account and even taking screen captures. Nelson told the publication that “The total effect [of Salaita’s tweets] seems to me to cross a line.”
I can understand what it’s like to feel as though my online speech is being watched. I work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals when they go online. Part of my work is defending bloggers and activists who are being persecuted for their online speech; around the world, from Ethiopia to Vietnam, Saudi Arabia to Cuba, those numbers keep increasing. This year, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders reported that 182 “netizens” are currently imprisoned.
I’ve never been jailed for my speech. But as someone who has taken part in activism for Palestine for many years, I know what it’s like to feel silenced. A couple of years ago, I was the victim of a viral write-in campaign aimed at getting me fired for critical comments I made about Israel on social media. Though—unlike the University of Illinois—my employer stood up for my right to express my opinions freely, the campaign still had a chilling effect; I am much more wary of risk when I open my mouth to speak.
While it’s impossible to say whether Salaita’s fate would have been the same if he had, for example, made the same comments on a conference panel or at a political rally, the incredibly public nature of social media—and Twitter in particular—put him in a more vulnerable position, leaving him open to coordinated attacks from detractors and setting him up for the public pressure that eventually resulted in his being let go.