'Uncivil': Professor Sues University For Free Speech Rights

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'Uncivil': Professor Sues University For Free Speech Rights

'There is neither a 'civility' exception nor a 'Palestine' exception to the First Amendment,' says attorney

"Like any American citizen, I have the right to express my opinion on pressing human rights concerns, including Israeli government actions, without fear of censorship or punishment," says Salaita. (Photo: File)

Professor Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor of Indigenous studies whose offer of a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign was rescinded last year because of his tweets criticizing the Israeli government’s bombing of Gaza, has filed a civil rights suit against the school and its top officials and donors, saying that his termination violated his First Amendment right to free speech and other constitutional rights, as well as basic principles of academic freedom.

"Like any American citizen, I have the right to express my opinion on pressing human rights concerns, including Israeli government actions, without fear of censorship or punishment," Salaita said in a statement. "The University’s actions have cost me the pinnacle of academic achievement—a tenured professorship, with the opportunity to write and think freely. What makes this worse is that in my case the University abandoned fundamental principles of academic freedom and shared governance, crucial to fostering critical thought, that should be at the core of the university mission."

"Only donor pressure, or sheer pride, can explain the administration’s stubborn refusal to revisit a decision that has done so much harm to Dr. Salaita and to constitutional and other principles that academics hold dear."
—Anand Swaminathan, Loevy & Loevy

Salaita, who is being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights along with the Chicago civil rights law firm of Loevy & Loevy, filed the lawsuit Thursday in a U.S. federal court in Chicago.

The complaint (pdf) alleges that university officials, including the chancellor and university trustees, violated Salaita’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process of law, and breached an employment contract with him. According to CCR, the suit is also against university donors who, based on emails made public, unlawfully threatened future donations to the university if it did not fire Salaita on account of his political views.

As Common Dreams reported in September, Salaita had been awarded the tenured position in fall 2013 and was scheduled to begin on August 16, 2014—just two weeks after Chancellor Phyllis Wise rescinded the offer. University documents released in response to a public-records request revealed that Wise had been pressured by numerous pro-Israel students, parents, alumni, and big-money donors to abort his appointment. These demands followed critical comments by Salaita regarding Israel's most recent attack on Gaza, during which thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of children, were killed.

The university's action, which Wise explained was taken because Salaita’s speech lacked "civility," spurred protests from within the university as well as the academic community at-large. Sixteen academic departments of the university have voted no confidence in the university administration, and prominent academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association, and the Society of American Law Teachers have publicly condemned the university’s actions.

"The use of 'civility' as cover for violating Professor Salaita’s rights must be challenged, as it threatens the very notion of a University as a place for free inquiry and open debate," said Maria LaHood, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. "There is neither a 'civility' exception nor a 'Palestine' exception to the First Amendment."

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

According to CCR, the lawsuit seeks Salaita’s reinstatement and monetary relief that includes compensation for the economic hardship and reputational damage he suffered as a result of the university’s actions. 

"Only donor pressure, or sheer pride, can explain the administration’s stubborn refusal to revisit a decision that has done so much harm to Dr. Salaita and to constitutional and other principles that academics hold dear," said Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy. "The administration has something to hide, and through this lawsuit we intend to expose it."

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