Professor’s free speech case against University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will continue, judge rules

ILLINOIS — Professor Steven Salaita will continue his free-speech case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over his controversial firing, now that a federal judge has rejected the university’s attempt to throw out Salaita’s lawsuit.

Last summer, Salaita, a Palestinian-American, posted a series of controversial tweets criticizing Israel’s military assault on Gaza. The university fired Salaita, who was tenured.

In late January, the Center for Constitutional Rights brought a lawsuit on Salaita’s behalf against the university, arguing that UIUC violated Salaita’s rights to free speech and due process and breached its employment contract with him. He is seeking reinstatement and monetary relief, on the basis that he has suffered economic hardship and reputational damage because of the university’s actions.

The university tried to block the lawsuit, claiming that it did not have a contract with Salaita and dismissing Salaita’s First Amendment claims. On Aug. 6, the court rejected both arguments, writing that Salaita’s tweets “implicate every ‘central concern’ of the First Amendment.”

“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 the restrictions on academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance will not become further entrenched because of UIUC’s behavior,” Salaita said in a statement.

The university has faced intense criticism from multiple academic organizations, prominent academics and its own students and professors — 16 academic departments at UIUC have voted no confidence in the administration, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Also on Aug. 6, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced she will resign, effective next week. In a statement, she cited “external issues” over the past year that “distracted us from the important tasks at hand.”

In June, the university was ordered by a federal judge to release about 9,000 emails between university officials and trustees, in relation to Salaita’s firing. The university initially denied the FOIA request, citing the “unduly burdensome or voluminous” clause of the statute.

Salaita’s case is part of a recent rash of cases related to professors’ academic freedom to speak, teach and write without the fear of facing administrative censorship or dismissal for their opinions. Currently, 53 universities have policies in place that do not meet the American Association of University Professors’ standards for academic freedom.

An article on Salaita’s case in the spring 2015 edition of the Student Press Law Center’s Report magazine quoted multiple professors and experts who say that policies that restrict professors’ speech is harmful to the free exchange of ideas essential to a university system — the “marketplace of ideas.”

“If we don’t protect academic freedom, then faculty members will be looking over their shoulders fearful that if they say something that the administration doesn’t like, or the legislature doesn’t like or some big donor doesn’t like, then they’ll be fired,” the AAUP’s Anita Levy said in the article, which will be posted online next week.