Steven Salaita today filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Chicago against University of Illinois officials and several university donors over the decision by administrators last August to revoke his appointment.
The lawsuit alleges a wide range of illegal conduct before and after university officials named in the suit “suddenly and summarily dismissed” Salaita from “a tenured faculty position” for “voicing his views.”
Salaita is seeking reinstatement and unspecified monetary damages and other relief for violations of his constitutional rights, breach of contract, wrongful interference with contractual relations and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
“My primary motivation in bringing this suit is to join my colleagues in the American Indian Studies program and begin teaching,” Salaita said in a media conference call with his lawyers shortly after the suit was filed.
“I do not want [the university’s] illegal actions to become the norm in US universities,” Salaita added.
He said that the lawsuit was a last resort, only after the university had rejected a recent recommendation by a faculty investigation committee to reconsider its decision.
Abuse of power
Salaita had been outspoken on Twitter in condemnation of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer which left more than 2,200 people, including more than 500 children, dead. His firing has prompted national and international controversy, condemnation by numerous academic bodies and an ongoing boycott of the university by thousands of scholars.
The complaint says that the firing took place after Salaita was recruited and vetted to teach in the American Indian Studies program in accordance with established procedures and after the university “induced him to rely on its contractual promise to resign from his tenured faculty position at another university.”
The lawsuit asserts that officials fired Salaita despite his “stellar academic credentials and without notice or due process” and engaged in “abuse of power or authority.”
“No one – not even the university administration – disputes the fact that it acted based on Professor Salaita’s speech,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint says that the pretexts the university gave for its actions – that Salaita was “uncivil” and “unfit” to teach – are baseless and “a defamatory means of justifying the decision to fire him for views the university officials did not like.”
The complaint names eleven university trustees and officials as defendants, including President Robert Easter, chairman of the board of trustees Christopher Kennedy, board member and former US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Phyllis Wise and Christophe Pierre, vice-president for academic affairs.
It asserts that Chancellor Wise deliberately and maliciously destroyed evidence related to the case, including a two-page memo about Salaita given to her by a donor, which had previously and unsuccessfully been sought by The Electronic Intifada under the Freedom of Information Act.
The complaint cites statements to the media by board chair Christopher Kennedy asserting that Salaita’s views were “anti-Semitic.” The lawsuit accuses Kennedy of defamation.
The suit also includes “unknown donors to the University of Illinois” as defendants.
It states that the defendants are being sued in both their official and individual capacities and that they conspired illegally to deprive Salaita of his rights.
“In the United States, Professor Salaita’s criticisms of Israeli state policy are infrequently heard from American politicians or presented in the mainstream or national media,” the complaint states. “The University administration, facing pressure from wealthy university donors, fired Professor Salaita for his political speech challenging prevailing norms.”
This action, the lawsuit asserts, violated Salaita’s constitutional right to free speech and “trampled on long-cherished principles of academic freedom.”
Much of the 39-page complaint carefully lays out the chronology of Salaita’s hiring, seeking to demonstrate that the university had made a clear and binding contractual commitment toward him that university officials then arbitrarily violated in numerous ways.
In October 2013, for example, Salaita received from the university, signed and returned an offer of employment for a tenured position with an annual salary of $85,000 at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus.
It also recounts the smear campaign that led up to Salaita’s firing. In July 2014, online media outlets “began reprinting a handful of the most strongly worded tweets expressing criticism of Israeli policy and actions,” the lawsuit states.
“The cherry-picked tweets that were published were taken in isolation and used to paint Professor Salaita as an anti-Semite and an advocate of violence” when Salaita “is neither of these things.”
Based on this “distorted picture,” students, alumni and donors began a campaign against Salaita, writing to Chancellor Wise, some threatening to withdraw financial support unless his appointment was reversed.
One was Chicago-based venture capitalist Steven N. Miller, a member of the university’s Business Council and a board member of the pro-Israel advocacy group Hillel.
Chancellor Wise subsequently met with Miller and separately with another unnamed wealthy donor to discuss Salaita in the days before he was fired.
The lawsuit alleges that Miller would have told Wise that “he would reduce or withhold his monetary contributions to the university if Professor Salaita was allowed to teach there.”
The complaint notes that Wise’s letter informing Salaita that he had been terminated was dated 1 August 2014 – the same day she had met with Miller.
Seeking to repair damage
The lawsuit says Salaita suffered “severe economic, emotional and reputational damage” as a result of actions by the university and “the donors of the university who demanded that the university break its contract” with him.
The complaint, which requests a jury trial, is a major step in what likely remains a long road for Salaita. It will also be a test of whether fundamental notions of free speech and academic freedom in the United States pertain even to critics of Israel.
Last November, Salaita sued the university in the Illinois courts over its failure to release documents related to his case under the Freedom of Information Act. That case is still before the courts.
During the conference call attorney, Anand Swaminathan of the firm Loevy & Loevy said the university’s refusal to release communications with its donors belied its claim that donor influence played no role in its decision.
Salaita is represented by the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
For more on his case visit the special page set up by the Center for Constitutional Rights.