Salaita hires powerful civil rights legal team, demands reinstatement UIUC
By Ray Hanania
Steven Salaita, who was fired before he could begin a new teaching position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said he is the victim of a nationwide campaign to silence critics of a foreign country, Israel, and demanded that the university’s reinstate his tenured appointment in the American Indian studies program which had been set to begin on August 16.
Salaita, at his first public appearance since his dismissal, said that both he and his wife had resigned their positions at Virginia Tech and had sold their home and were relocating to the UIUC area to begin the position. Salaita had held a lifetime tenured position at Virginia Tech where he has taught since 2006.
But UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise emailed Salaita on Aug. 1, 2014, saying that he would not have the job after all. Wise had been lobbied by individuals who were angry because of Salaita’s public expressions of criticism of Israel’s policies in the Gaza Strip, policies that had resulted in the murder of more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians including women, the elderly and children. In fact, more than 500 children including infants and babies, were among those killed by Israel’s assaults.
Salaita had on his popular Twitter feed expressed criticism, including denouncing Israel, a foreign country, and harshly attacking the Israeli settlers whose extremism has fed the violence that has consumed Israel since the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in June 1967. The Israeli war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip was highly emotional and contentious on all sides.
At his press conference, Salaita announced that he has hired a formidable team of lawyers including attorneys Maria LaHood and Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights, attorneys Anand Swaminathan and Gretchen Helfrich, and Jon Loevy, the principle of the influential Chicago Civil Rights firm of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago.
“Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy. Tenure – a concept that is well over a hundred years old – is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect these ideals and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views. I have devoted my entire life to challenging prevailing orthodoxies, critiquing architectures of power and violence in the US and abroad and surfacing narratives of people – including Palestinians and Native Americans – who are subject to occupation, marginalization, and violence,” Salaita said at his press conference Tuesday morning.
“The Chancellor and Board of Trustees are apparently displeased by messages I posted on my personal Twitter account that were critical of recent atrocities committed by the Israeli government, which the United Nations referred to as ‘criminal.’ My Twitter messages are no doubt passionate and unfiltered; they reflect my deep dismay at the deaths of more than 2,000 innocent Palestinians, over 500 of them children.”
Salaita said that emails released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act disclose that Wise had come under pressure from University contributors who had a clearly political agenda and disliked Salaita’s views, suggesting that his hiring might cost the University their six figure donations.
“In recent statements, Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees said that the University Administration found the tone of my tweets ‘uncivil’ and raised questions about my ability to inhabit the University environment. This is a perilous standard that risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom. My comments were not made in a classroom or on campus; they were made through my personal Twitter account. The University’s policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination if University administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech ‘uncivil’ without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made. This is a highly subjective and sprawling standard that can be used to attack faculty who espouse unpopular or unconventional ideas,” Salaita said.
“Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom. The ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions to bedrock principles should be worrying to all scholars and teachers.”
Salaita’s attorneys said the university’s action was clearly based on Salaita’s expression of his views and his Constitutional Rights to Free Speech.
“The University has violated the Constitution by terminating Professor Salaita’s appointment based on the content of his speech,” said Maria LaHood, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Prof. Salaita. “It has also sent a chilling message to faculty and students everywhere that the First Amendment and basic principles of academic freedom will be ignored when it comes to speech that is controversial or critical of the Israeli government.”
Professor Robert Warrior, Director of the UIUC’s prestigious American Indian Studies Program, which Salaita was hired to join, defended Salaita saying, “Having watched this disaster unfold over the course of more than a month from up close, I am overjoyed that people now have the opportunity to hear the human and passionate voice of Steven Salaita, the scholar and man I have admired for many years.”
Salaita concluded by thanking the thousands of supporters who have condemned the UIUC administration’s actions.
“During this challenging time, I am deeply grateful to the many hundreds of people and prominent organizations who have raised their voices in defense of the principles of academic freedom, including the nearly 18,000 individuals who have signed a petition demanding corrective action and the numerous faculty around the world who are boycotting the University until I am reinstated. The students and instructors gathered here have shown themselves to be exemplars of everything to which a university should aspire,” Salaita said.
“I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom. This is, as we say in my profession, a ‘teaching moment.’ We must all strive together to make the most of it.”
Here is a Video of Salaita’s remarks:
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and political columnist. He is the managing editor of The Arab Daily News website www.TheArabDailyNews.com. Contact Ray Hanania at rayhanania@theArabDailyNews.com. For full disclosure, Hanania has been represented in the past by the law firm of Loevy & Loevy and continues an association as a client of the law firm.)