In January, we wrote about Professor Steven Salaita’s fight for academic freedom. He was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign because of his tweets criticizing the Israeli government’s bombing of Gaza last year. Loevy & Loevy partnered with the Center for Constitutional Rights to file the federal civil rights lawsuit on Salaita’s behalf. Loevy & Loevy also filed an accompanying FOIA case against the University for email correspondence relating to the school’s decision to fire Salaita. Salaita, et al. v. The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2014 MR 920.
This past Friday, Loevy & Loevy attorney Anand Swaminathan successfully argued for the disclosure of U of I administrators’ email correspondence with donors and other senior officials. After approximately 40 minutes of arguments, in a packed courtroom full of Salaita supporters, Judge Difanis ruled from the bench in Professor Salaita’s favor and ordered the University to release emails regarding the University’s firing of Professor Salaita. This is a huge victory for Salaita and for all supporters of free speech and academic freedom.
The University had previously refused to produce these emails asserting that the compilation and disclosure of these emails would be unduly burdensome, and therefore exempted from production. But that argument was quickly debunked during oral arguments. First, the University ignored Plaintiffs’ request and failed to respond within 5 days as required under IL FOIA Section 3(d). Because of the University’s failure to timely respond, it waived the undue burden exemption. Second, the University claimed that it lacks the resources to respond to the request. This argument runs counter to the purpose of FOIA. If public entities are able to dodge FOIA requests simply by claiming lack of resources, then they would be incentivized to limit their FOIA resources to escape production. Third, as a logistical matter, the University overstated the amount of time and money it would cost to produce the responsive emails. In its estimate, the University inflated factors such as length of email (the University claimed 1 to 1.5 pages per email) in order to increase the number of hours for review. The reality is that most emails are short and no more than a few sentences long.
The University also attempted to minimize the tremendous public interest in this case and the University’s practices relating to influential donors. The attorney for the University argued that this was not a case of public interest, but rather public curiosity, and compared Professor Salaita to the Kardashians. In response, Mr. Swaminathan stated that “Steven Salaita is no Kardashian.” He explained that the Kardashians’ fame is based on the family’s reputation and its publicity stunts whereas Salaita is known to the public solely because of the University’s decision to terminate him. Unlike the Kardashians, the public is not interested in Salaita’s personal life; they are interested in his fight for free speech and academic freedom.
People have been celebrating this victory by making light of the Kardashian analogy on social media sites. Salaita tweeted:
When I told my wife opposing counsel compared me to Kim Kardashian, she replied, a bit too eagerly, “So does that makes me Kanye West?”
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 12, 2015
Someone even photoshoped Salaita’s face to a swimsuit picture of Kim Kardashian!
Friday’s hearing was a huge success and to add icing on the cake, today the American Association of University Professors announced that the group voted to add the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the censure list for not observing the generally recognized principles of academic freedom and tenure approved by this Association, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and more than two hundred other professional and educational organizations. But the fight is not over — the University may appeal Friday’s decision or try to redact significant portions of emails. Whatever the next challenge may be, we will be ready for it. The fight for free speech and academic freedom is one we must take seriously.