Dr. Steven Salaita is a Palestinian American scholar in Native American studies. He is suing the University of Illinois.

Salaita Sues University and Donors Over Firing for ‘Uncivil’ Criticism of Israel

Gale Courey Toensing

Dr. Steven Salaita has filed a multi-claim civil rights lawsuit against top officials at the University of Illinois for firing him as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies program after he publicly criticized Israel’s bombing of Gaza last summer.

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Salaita is also suing an unspecified number of “John Doe’s” for tortious interference—wrongfully interfering with a plaintiff's contractual or business relationships. This claim is against university donors who, based on emails made public through Freedom of Information Act requests, made allegedly unlawful threats to stop donating to the university if Salaita was not fired because of his criticism of Israel.

Salaita's speech consisted of comments posted on his personal Twitter account that criticized Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer. The air and ground assault killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 500 children. The United Nations Human Rights Council on July 23 referred to “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014.”

“Like any American citizen, I have the right to express my opinion on pressing human rights concerns, including Israeli government actions, without fear of censorship or punishment,” Salaita said in a statement issued by his attorneys, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Chicago firm of Loevy & Loevy. “The University’s actions have cost me the pinnacle of academic achievement—a tenured professorship, with the opportunity to write and think freely. What makes this worse is that in my case the university abandoned fundamental principles of academic freedom and shared governance, crucial to fostering critical thought, that should be at the core of the university mission.”

The lawsuit, filed January 29 in federal court in Chicago, alleges that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) officials, including Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, Vice President Christopher Pierre, members of the Board of Trustees and the John Doe donors together and separately violated Salaita’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process of law, as well as the basic principles of academic freedom, breached his employment contract, committed conspiracy, promissory estoppel and intentional infliction of emotional distress when they fired him for expressing political opinions. The lawsuit seeks reinstatement and unspecified compensation for the economic hardship and damage to his reputation.

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

Administrators at the University of Illinois issued a statement in response to the lawsuit saying the university “intends to vigorously defend against these and each of Dr. Salaita’s other meritless claims.”

Salaita filed the lawsuit after months of seeking reinstatement. In a conference call with the media just after the lawsuit was filed he said again that he wants his job back. “My primary motivation in bringing this suit is to join my colleagues in the American Indian Studies program and begin teaching,” Salaita said.

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An authorized faculty committee recruited Salaita in 2013, vetted his scholarship, reviewed his teaching evaluations, and offered him a tenured faculty position in the American Indian Studies Program at a salary of $85,000. Salaita signed the contract, resigned from his tenured position at Virginia Tech, gave up his home there and prepared to move with his wife, who had also resigned from a full-time job, and young son to Illinois. He was scheduled to begin teaching on August 16, but on August 1 Wise fired him without explanation, stating that she didn’t think the Board of Trustees would sign off on his contract so she wasn’t going to send it to them. After weeks of silence as to why Salaita was fired, Wise said that her decision was not based on the substance of his criticism of Israel, but rather on the uncivil tone of his criticism.

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

“No one—not even the university administration—disputes the fact that [the university] acted based on Professor Salaita’s speech,” the lawsuit says.

Indeed, in their statement responding to the lawsuit, the university administrators acknowledged that Salaita was fired because of his tweeted criticism of Israel’s actions. “Dr. Salaita began demonstrating that he lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign” when he posted his political views on social media last summer, the administrators said. The administrators then included a number of Salaita’s tweets that they found offensive as proof of his “lack of fitness” to teach at UIUC.

“The use of ‘civility’ as cover for violating Professor Salaita’s rights must be challenged, as it threatens the very notion of a university as a place for free inquiry and open debate,” Maria LaHood, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in the statement. “There is neither a ‘civility’ exception nor a ‘Palestine’ exception to the First Amendment.”

As for the claims against donors, although Wise and trustees denied for weeks that Salaita’s criticism of Israel had anything to do with his firing, hundreds of documents and emails released under the Freedom of Information Act confirm the deep political and financial ties between the university’s leadership and Israel. Additionally, they show that wealthy pro-Israel donors clearly threatened to stop giving money to the university if Salaita was kept on the faculty. The university has refused to release additional documents, however, and a Freedom of Information lawsuit is pending in state court. There will be a hearing on the university’s motion to dismiss that case on February 13.

“Prominent nationwide academic organizations and thousands of faculty have all condemned the administration’s actions and demanded it reconsider Salaita’s firing, but the university still refuses,” attorney Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy said in the statement. “Only donor pressure, or sheer pride, can explain the administration’s stubborn refusal to revisit a decision that has done so much harm to Dr. Salaita and to constitutional and other principles that academics hold dear. The administration has something to hide, and through this lawsuit we intend to expose it.”

Since Salaita’s firing, 16 academic departments of the university have voted no confidence in the administration and prominent academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, 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 have pledged to boycott the institution, resulting in the cancellation of more than three dozen scheduled talks and conferences at the school.

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