Federal Judge to UIUC: Salaita Has Grounds for Lawsuit
On Thursday, August 6, a federal judge dismissed Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s (UIUC) efforts to strike down Professor Steven Salaita’s lawsuit regarding his firing from a tenured position over statements he made on Twitter during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza last summer. The University maintains the decision over Salaita’s position is due to his comments “uncivil” nature and further argue there was no official contract between the professor and UIUC.
The same day, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced her resignation as head of the University, effective August 12, citing “external issues” as a point of concern. Many believe Chancellor Wise and UIUC administration have initially mislead the investigation, following emails released earlier this year indicating the university initially defended Salaita’s freedom of speech
The federal court thoroughly rejected these claims, 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 also denied UIUC’s motion to dismiss Professor Salaita’s First Amendment’s claims, stating the professor’s online statements “implicate every ‘central concern’ of the First Amendment.”
This is the second victory for Professor Salaita in his legal recourse taken against UIUC. In June, a Champaign County court ordered the university to release thousands of emails in relation to the firing of Salaita. This decision was considered a victory by Salaita’s supporters, who brought the separate legal action to UIUC under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), after the university refused to fully release email correspondence.
The university’s legal team argued the request would be overly burdensome, and stating there was merely “public curiosity” in the Salaita case, likening him to the news coverage of celebrities such as the Kardashians. Federal Judge Thomas Difanis ruled against this argument and stated it was a matter of public interest.
The Salaita lawsuit has been brought against the university by the Center for Constitutional Rights and prominent Chicago-based civil rights firm, Loevy & Loevy. Since the beginning of Salaita’s legal actions, the lawsuit has garnered significant support from across the academic community. At UIUC alone, sixteen academic departments have submitted no confidence votes in university administration over the issue, while numerous national academic organizations have condemned the university–including the American Historical Association, Modern Language Association and the Society of American Law Teachers. Most recently, the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) formally censured UIUC over the firing 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.”
In late June, Steven Salaita announced his acceptance as the new Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at American University of Beirut for the 2015-16 academic year. The position will begin Fall 2015 for a one year term. The new appointment is not expected to interfere with the ongoing federal lawsuit brought against UIUC and their board of trustees by Salaita. According to The News-Gazette, the university has already spent over $843,000 on legal costs. University spokesman Tom Hardy has stated that a portion of the costs were paid for by public funds.