Illinois Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis today ordered the University of Illinois to release thousands of pages of emails that may cast light on the state institution’s decision to fire Steven Salaita last August.
The decision in the Champaign County Court was a big victory for Salaita, who brought a lawsuit against the university under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Difanis rejected the university’s claims that the request would be too burdensome and agreed with Salaita’s lawyers that there was a significant public interest in whether hiring decisions by the university have been unduly influenced by donors.
At issue were about 9,000 pages of emails from or to about a dozen senior university officials, narrowed down from earlier requests that the university said would have run to tens of thousands of pages.
In a separate federal lawsuit that is still in its early stages, Salaita is suing university trustees, administrators and donors for breaching a contract to hire him and violating his constitutional rights over tweets he made critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer.
Difanis issued his ruling after a 40-minute hearing in which Salaita’s attorney Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy argued back and forth with university counsel Charles Schmadeke of Hinshaw & Culbertson.
The judge said that previous scandals at the university – including the so-called “clout list” that gave preferential admission to politically-connected applicants – were examples of why the public had a right to know the information Salaita was seeking.
At one point, Schmadeke argued that there was no genuine “public interest” in the Salaita case but rather “public curiosity” similar to that around reality TV’s Kardashian family.
Swaminathan responded that “Steven Salaita is no Kardashian.” He cited not just extensive national and international interest in the free speech and academic freedom issues raised by his case, but the fact that numerous national academic bodies, notably the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued statements and reports on it.
He gestured toward the two dozen people in the public gallery, including many students and faculty who would have been working with Salaita in the American Indian Studies program at the Urbana-Champaign campus had he not been fired.
Difanis also rejected university claims that the work of sorting the emails outweighed the legitimate public interest, even if it required hiring temporary staff in order to complete the job.
Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Salaita’s attorney Anand Swaminathan welcomed the court’s decision. “We’re very glad the judge got it right, correctly identifying the public interest,” he said. “At this point the public will finally be allowed to know whether the things the university has said publicly about its decisions are true.”
Swaminathan said he understood the judge’s order took immediate effect, but that if the university appealed it could be delayed. But as of today, the university must proceed on the FOIA request without delay.
The attorney also said he feared the university could use provisions in the FOIA law to try to redact large parts of the emails. At one point during the hearing, Schmadeke said that even if released much of the information could be “blacked out” under a provision protecting the privacy of internal “deliberative process.”
In court, Swaminathan responded that emails between donors and university officials could not be redacted under this provision.
He told The Electronic Intifada that if the university adopted an “aggressive approach” to redaction in an effort to stall further and withhold information, “we could find ourselves back in court pursuing further litigation.”
A university spokesperson told local newspaper the News-Gazette that the university would comply with the ruling.
These concerns however did not detract from the delight at today’s victory – for Salaita’s lawyers who got everything they asked for in the lawsuit – or for supporters who attended the hearing.
One of those was Stephanie Skora, an undergraduate student who had taken an active role in protests and organizing against the university’s firing of Salaita.
The ruling, Skora said, will “give students an opportunity to see for ourselves what goes on behind the closed doors of the university administration.”
Salaita has tweeted his satisfaction with the ruling.