A professor who 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 has filed a civil rights suit against the University and its top officials, saying that his firing violated his First Amendment right to free speech and other constitutional rights, and basic principles of academic freedom.
Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor of indigenous studies, filed the lawsuit today in a U.S. federal court in the Northern District of Illinois, in Chicago, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm of Loevy & Loevy. The suit 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 its employment contract with him. 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 Professor Salaita on account of his political views. Those donors are not currently identified by name.
“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. 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,” said Professor Salaita.
After a national search and interview process, Professor Salaita had been offered a tenured faculty position in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was due to start working in two weeks when he received a letter from Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre terminating his appointment, without notice or explanation. Salaita and his wife had already quit their jobs at Virginia Tech University, where he was tenured. University officials have since acknowledged that their decision was based on Salaita’s tweets about Israel’s military assault on Gaza, which they viewed as “uncivil.”
Last month, the University’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure concluded that Salaita’s termination was improper and called for the University to reconsider its decision and renounce its statement that the action was taken because Salaita’s speech lacked “civility.” Two weeks ago, the University’s board rejected the committee’s recommendation to reconsider its decision after allowing qualified academic experts to weigh in, calling its decision final.
“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. There is neither a ‘civility’ exception nor a ‘Palestine’ exception to the First Amendment,” said Maria LaHood, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Professor Salaita’s termination violated the University’s contractual commitment to him, its own policies and procedures, accepted principles of shared governance and academic freedom, and the United States Constitution.”
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.
Chancellor Wise has stated that the decision to terminate Salaita was not influenced by pressure from wealthy donors. University documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, however, include letters and emails from several donors to Wise openly stating that they would withdraw financial support from the University if it did not fire Salaita. For example, Steven Miller is alleged to have met with Wise to “share his thoughts about the University’s hiring of Professor Salaita.” Miller is the owner of a Chicago-based venture capital firm and has endowed a professorship at the University in his name. Salaita’s letter of termination was dated the same day Wise and Miller met.
“The University’s administration has repeatedly said one thing, and then done another. The administration keeps insisting that its decision was not influenced by donor pressure, but yet it has refused to comply with requests for emails from donors to University officials under Illinois government transparency laws. The Chancellor and Board keep saying they are committed to principles of academic freedom and shared governance, but they refuse to follow the recommendation of the University’s own Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to allow academic experts on its faculty to weigh in. Prominent nationwide academic organizations and thousands of faculty have all condemned the administration’s actions and demanded it reconsider Salaita’s firing, but the University still refuses. 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. The administration has something to hide, and through this lawsuit we intend to expose it,” said Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy.
Since Salaita’s firing, the University’s leadership has faced increasing nationwide criticism from within the academic community. 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. More than 5,000 academics from around the country have pledged to boycott the institution, resulting in the cancellation of more than three dozen scheduled talks and conferences at the school.
A FOIA litigation lawsuit against the University seeking administrators’ email correspondence with donors and other documents remains pending in state court, and there will be hearing on the University’s motion to dismiss that case on February 13th.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. Visit www.ccrjustice.org. Follow @theCCR.
Loevy & Loevy is one of the nation’s largest and most successful civil rights law firms, dedicated to seeking justice for those whose civil rights have been violated and for whistleblowers. Our willingness to take hard cases to trial and win them has yielded a nationally recognized reputation for success in the courtroom. We only take cases we passionately believe in, we forge close bonds with our clients, and we are proud to have achieved outstanding results for them with truly uncommon consistency. Visit us at loevy.com. Follow @loevyandloevy.