Steven Salaita, a tenured associate professor in the American Indian Studies program, was fired a year ago with a summary dismissal for tweets that were construed as lacking civility. A federal judge, Harry D. Leinenweber of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, has ruled against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that sought dismissal of the case. The judge, in a fifty-six page decision, ruled that the University of Illinois cannot disavow having a contractual obligation in this matter.
The case is Steven Salaita v. Christopher Kennedy, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, et al. and the decision is here. Dr Salaita reacted to this positive development: “Given the serious ramifications of my termination from a tenured professorship to a wide range of people, I am happy to move forward with this suit in the hope that restrictions on academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance will not become further entrenched because of UIUC’s behavior.” The following emanates from Dr Salaita’s attorneys:
August 6, 2015, Chicago – Today, a federal judge rejected efforts to throw out a lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for firing Professor Steven Salaita from a tenured position based on his personal tweets criticizing Israel’s military assault on Gaza last summer. The university has admitted that it based its decision on Salaita’s tweets, calling them “uncivil.” The court firmly rejected the university’s claim that it did not have a contract with Professor Salaita, stating, “If the Court accepted the University’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist.” The court further rejected the university’s attempt to dismiss Professor Salaita’s First Amendment claims, finding that his tweets “implicate every ‘central concern’ of the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Loevy & Loevy on Professor Salaita’s behalf, argues that UIUC violated Salaita’s rights to free speech and due process and breached its employment contract with him. It seeks Professor Salaita’s reinstatement and monetary relief, including compensation for the economic hardship and reputational damage he suffered as a result of the university’s actions. Shortly before the lawsuit was filed, UIUC rejected a recommendation from the university’s own Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) that the university reconsider its decision.
“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,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “The university must finally face the facts of what it has done to Professor Salaita and principles of academic freedom.”
Today’s ruling comes on the heels of an Illinois state court’s decision in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on June 12 ordering university officials to turn over emails related to Professor Salaita’s firing that they had refused to divulge, as well as a vote by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to censure the university on June 13. The AAUP issued a report in April that concluded UIUC had violated academic freedom and due process.
The university’s leadership has faced increasing nationwide criticism over Salaita’s firing, particularly within the academic community. Sixteen academic departments of the university have voted no confidence in the UIUC administration, and prominent academic organizations, including the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association and the Society of American Law Teachers, have publicly condemned the university’s actions. More than 5,000 academics from around the country, including Dr. Cornel West and Angela Davis, have pledged to boycott UIUC, resulting in the cancellation of more than three dozen scheduled talks and conferences at the school. Last September, UIUC students staged a silent walk-out to protest what they said was the university’s silencing of Salaita.
“In its effort to have Professor Salaita’s lawsuit thrown out before discovery into the reasons for its decision, the university’s administration took a number of positions that showed contempt for its constitutional obligations, and raise serious doubts about the university’s commitment to academic freedom and its willingness to honor contractual commitments to its scholars,” said Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy. “We are extremely pleased that the court has rejected the University’s dubious arguments.”
After a rigorous year-long national search and interview process, the American Indian Studies program at UIUC offered Professor Salaita a tenured faculty position in Fall 2013, which he promptly accepted. Relying on UIUC’s contractual promise, Professor Salaita resigned from his tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech and prepared to move to Champaign. In August 2014, just two weeks before he was due to begin teaching, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre informed Professor Salaita that the university had terminated his appointment. He was not given an opportunity to object or be heard.