Salaita sues Univ. of Illinois for refusing to release emails related to firing

The University of Illinois’ decision to fire Steven Salaita generated unprecedented mobilizations. (Jeffrey Putney/Flickr)

Steven Salaita is suing the University of Illinois for its refusal to release emails related to administrators’ decision to fire him last summer.

Salaita had been hired by the university for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program, but he was fired after an outcry by pro-Israel donors and activists over his tweets critical of Israel’s massacre in Gaza.

Attorneys at the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy filed suit in the Circuit Court of Champaign County in Illinois on Monday alleging that the university is in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the university to release thousands of emails and pay unspecified civil damages and legal costs.

“The University of Illinois, after firing Professor Salaita for his tweets critical of Israel, is refusing to produce the emails of administrators involved in that decision,” Maria LaHood, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada. “So we have been forced to sue the university for public records that it is required to release under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights is representing Salaita along with Loevy & Loevy. 

Willful, intentional and in bad faith

The lawsuit states that last September, Salaita requested “a variety of records concerning the decision to terminate him, and concerning academic freedom and faculty governance issues more generally at the university.”

The university rejected that request on the grounds that it was “unduly burdensome.”

But, the lawsuit notes, the Freedom of Information Act allows public bodies to refuse to produce records only if the burden outweighs the public interest in disclosing them.

It argues that the massive national and international coverage of the case and the boycott of the university by thousands of scholars are ample evidence of public interest in the case which relates directly to constitutional free speech rights, faculty governance and academic freedom.

This writer signed a declaration included as an exhibit with the lawsuit asserting The Electronic Intifada’s interest in the records for its news reporting on the Salaita case. There are similar declarations from Mondoweiss editor Philip Weiss, and Jerome McDonnell, host of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio.

The lawsuit describes extensive efforts by Salaita’s lawyers to narrow down the requests to make them more practicable, but alleges that ultimately the university failed to respond in the manner required by the law.

Salaita’s lawyers say that the university’s claim that sorting an estimated 8,000-10,000 emails would be too much trouble are not credible and that the university and its outside lawyers have the tools available to do this within “a week or two.”

Thus, the lawsuit concludes, the university’s refusal to release the records is “willful, intentional and in bad faith.”

The Electronic Intifada’s “declaration”

The Electronic Intifada’s declaration notes that the emails Salaita is seeking are critical to media coverage of the matter and “extremely important to our readers.”

The declaration notes that The Electronic Intifada has also faced difficulties obtaining records related to the Salaita case from the University of Illinois.

In September, the university failed to produce a “two-pager” on Steven Salaita handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a pro-Israel donor. That matter is now under review by the Illinois attorney general’s office.