Professor Steven Salaita, whose job offer was rescinded by the University of Illinois, gave a public response Sept. 9 at the university YMCA in Urbana, Illinois.

Salaita’s Attorneys Consider Multi-Claim Legal Action against UIUC Officials

Gale Courey Toensing
10/6/14

A vote by the University of Illinois board of trustees to void a tenured position offered to Dr. Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) over his tweets criticizing Israel’s devastating bombing of Gaza leaves him with only one option – a legal action against the university and the individuals who rescinded the offer, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights told ICTMN.

“Given the board’s decision, there’s really no choice left but to file a lawsuit to uphold Professor Salaita’s First Amendment right of free speech, including the right to be free of punishment because of his viewpoint,” said Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney at the CCR, which represents Salaita along with the firm of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago.

RELATED: Dr. Steven Salaita Fired for Speaking His Mind on Israel and Gaza

The board’s 8-1 vote in favor of removing the offer took place September 11 – almost eight tumultuous weeks after Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s August 1 letter telling Salaita that the board of trustees would not likely sign off on his appointment so she was not going to send it to them. She did not consult with the faculty committee that hired him and gave no reason for his termination. Since his firing, nearly 6,000 professors nationwide support boycotting the university, 16 departments have voted "no confidence" in the administration, and the Modern Language Association and Association of American University Professors, among dozens of other organizations, have demanded his reinstatement.

Salaita was offered the job as a tenured professor in UIUC’s prestigious American Indian Studies Program with Wise’s approval last fall. He signed the contract, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, and was scheduled to begin work August 16 when the termination letter arrived.

Wise later issued a statement that Salaita wasn’t fired because of his anti-Israel political position – he was fired because of the “disrespectful” tone in which he expressed his anti-Israel position. She said she wanted to protect the students from Salaita’s tone.

But hundreds of emails released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the real reason he was fired: powerful and wealthy supporters of Israel brought pressure to bear on the administration, threatening to stop donating money to the university if Salaita wasn’t fired.

RELATED: Salaita Firing Is ‘Israeli Attack on Palestine Coming to Our Campus’

Free speech violations would not be the only claims filed against the university and its officials, LaHood said.

“We would also bring contract claims and bring claims on the rights he had under his agreement with the university to be a faculty member there,” LaHood said.

Slander or defamation claims are also possible. “We’ll have to look more carefully at what they said. It may be a consideration,” LaHood said.

For example, in an interview during the board of trustees’ September meeting, university President Bob Easter harshly criticized Salaita without substantive reason or reference to his record. “I’ve come to the conclusion that Professor Salaita’s approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration regardless of the issues being discussed,” Easter said. “I’m also concerned that his irresponsible statements would make it more difficult for the University of Illinois, particularly the Urbana Champaign campus, to attract the best and brightest faculty, students and staff.” A video of the entire meeting is available here.

In a September 9 article in the Chicago Tribune called “U. of I. destroyed my career,” Salaita described the scrutiny he underwent after being recruited for the job. “Being recruited for a tenured faculty position at a major university is no small feat, nor should it be; tenure represents the pinnacle of an academic career. In my case, it involved numerous interviews with faculty in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an intensive review of my scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.” Clearly, the review produced no red flags and Salaita was given a contract.

“It’s been sickening, some of the things said about Professor Salaita,” LaHood said. “You had eight of the nine people entrusted to govern the University of Illinois who weren’t interested in the truth about Professor Salaita’s views or, frankly, the views of the department that hired him. It felt like a witch hunt and the names and labels being used against Professor Salaita are simply not true.”

Salaita was accused – as are most critics of Israel – of being anti-Semitic.

“In fact, as my Twitter followers know, I vocally condemn anti-Semitism, as when I tweeted, ‘My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of anti-Semitism,’ or when I criticized the rapper Macklemore for wearing a costume that evoked age-old Jewish stereotypes. As I noted during the Gaza bombing, ‘I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God.’ The point that Jewish people and the behavior of the Israeli state should not be conflated is one I have made consistently both in my academic writing and on my personal Twitter account,” Salaita wrote in “U. of I. destroyed my career.”

Attorneys for the university could not be reached for comment.

Salaita’s attorneys may also consider a claim of tortious interference, a common law tort allowing a claim for damages against a defendant who wrongfully interferes with the plaintiff's contractual or business relationships.

“Dr. Salaita quit a tenured position in reliance on having this tenured position. He’s lost a tremendous amount,” LaHood said. And his case is unique. “There have been other cases of faculty having issues because of their views on Israel/Palestine but Professor Salaita was terminated from a tenured position for tweets on his personal twitter account.”

The trustees claim Salaita wasn’t really an employee because they hadn’t signed off on his hiring but that clam is specious, LaHood said, pointing out that the vote for appointments to the faculty took place at the September meeting “when everybody was already teaching except Professor Salaita who was terminated. We’ve heard this vote sometimes happens in November when people have been teaching for months so in effect it’s an utterly perfunctory vote. The board’s authority under the law is strictly limited to an approval after receiving basic forms. No one can recall an instance where there has ever been a vote against a hire.”

In an interview after the September 11 meeting, Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy, the late Robert Kennedy’s son, hinted at the possibility of a settlement. “He acknowledged that there’s a lot of case law about what you should do when this sort of thing happens,” LaHood said. “In other words, it seems like they know they’re violating the law and they think they can make it right by paying for it.” She could not comment on whether a settlement offer has been made.

LaHood said there is no pressing timeline for filing the lawsuit, but indicated it will be filed sooner rather than later.

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Marc Allan Feldman
Submitted by Marc Allan Feldman on
The word "tone" does not appear in Chancellor Wise's statement. The action against Salaita's hiring took place because his statements "demean and abuse". "We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals." If Salaita had tweeted "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking Palestinians would go missing." and "It’s simple: either condemn #Hamas actions or embrace your identity as someone who’s okay with the wholesale slaughter of children. #Gaza" He still would have lost his tenure offer. But i doubt anyone here would complain.
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