A federal judge in Chicago today ruled that Steven Salaita’s lawsuit against the University of Illinois for firing him over tweets critical of Israel can go forward.
Meanwhile, in another major development almost certainly related to the case, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the top administrator at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus (UIUC) where Salaita was due to teach, resigned.
No specific reason was given for the surprise announcement, but in a statement Wise acknowledged that “external issues have arisen over the past year that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand.”
“I have concluded that these issues are diverting much needed energy and attention from our goals,” Wise added. “I therefore believe the time is right for me to step aside.”
More than a dozen university departments have over the last year passed motions of no confidence in Wise over her handling of the Salaita matter. Wise will receive a $400,000 payoff from the cash-strapped public university and will remain on its faculty.
Green light for lawsuit
The university had filed a motion to dismiss Salaita’s lawsuit which names top administrators including Wise, trustees and donors as defendants.
But US District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber wrote in a 56-page ruling that Salaita had made plausible claims against the university for breach of contract and for violating his First Amendment free speech rights.
The ruling is at times scathing in rejecting arguments put forward by the university.
“If the court accepted the university’s argument,” the ruling states, “the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist.”
The judge did however rule partially in the university’s favor, throwing out Salaita’s claims against the donors.
“Given the serious ramifications of my termination from a tenured professorship to a wide range of people, I am happy to move forward with this suit in the hope that restrictions on academic freedom, free speech and shared governance will not become further entrenched because of UIUC’s behavior,” Salaita said in a press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is part of his legal team.
This is the second legal setback the university has suffered in the Salaita matter. In June, an Illinois judge ordered the university to release thousands of pages of emails related to his firing that it was withholding.
Fired over tweets
Salaita’s case rests on the fact that in October 2013, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered him a tenured faculty position in the American Indian Studies program at an annual salary of $85,000.
Based on this, Salaita resigned his tenured position at another university and moved his family to Illinois. He was due to start teaching in August 2014.
But after pro-Israel websites and organizations, university donors, students and others began a campaign objecting to Salaita’s tweets critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza in late July last year, the university reneged on the offer.
The university now claims that it never had a contract with Salaita because his hiring was subject to final approval from its board of trustees.
But the university nonetheless assigned Salaita his classes, set up his new email account and paid all of his moving expenses before this approval. Moreover, 120 other new faculty all began teaching – as Salaita was supposed to – weeks before the board met to formally approve their hiring.
Only Salaita’s appointment was singled out at the September 2014 board meeting for a separate vote, and rejected.
The judge’s decision states that the university “cannot argue with a straight face that it engaged in all these actions in the absence of any [contractual] obligation or agreement” with Salaita.
The court also ruled the Salaita case implicates every “central concern” relating to free speech and the First Amendment.
Phyllis Wise had notoriously tried to justify the dismissal of Salaita by claiming that the problem was not the political content of his tweets but that the way he expressed himself lacked “civility.”
But, the judge notes, “the Supreme Court did not draw such a line when it found” in a landmark 1971 case “[anti-war activist Paul Robert] Cohen’s ‘Fuck the Draft’ jacket protected by the First Amendment.”
Given that “the topic of Israeli-Palestinian relations often bring passionate emotions to the surface,” the judge adds, “it would be nearly impossible to separate the tone of tweets on this issue with the content and views they express.”
Salaita’s lawsuit charges unnamed big donors to the university with “tortious interference” in his contract because they threatened to withhold donations to the university unless it reneged on hiring him.
But the court found that even if that were true, the donors would have been engaging in protected speech. “The First Amendment is a two-way street,” the ruling states, “protecting both Dr. Salaita’s speech and that of the donor defendants.”
In a July 2014 email released under the Freedom of Information Act, Chancellor Wise revealed the existence of a “two-pager” memo about Salaita handed to her by one of the big donors she met.
The contents of this memo have been the subject of intense speculation. The Electronic Intifada made extensive efforts to obtain it under the Freedom of Information Act, but the university claimed it had been lost.
Salaita’s lawsuit alleged that Wise “wrongfully destroyed” the memo, and thus got rid of vital evidence.
The court decided that the memo was not essential to proving Salaita’s breach of contract and First Amendment claims and so also dismissed that count.
Overall, however, Salaita’s legal team views the judge’s decision as a clear win and is looking forward to the next stages in the case.
“The court’s ruling clears the way for Professor Salaita to seek redress for the wrongs done by the university, including violating his right to speak freely on issues of public concern without being fired,” Maria LaHood from the Center for Constitutional Rights stated.
“The university must finally face the facts of what it has done to Professor Salaita and principles of academic freedom.”