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Salaita Wins Suit for 9,000 Emails; University Censured for Rights Violations

Steven Salaita, who was fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for criticizing Israel on Twitter, has had two back-to-back victories.

Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian American tenured professor of American Indian Studies, who was fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for criticizing Israel on Twitter, has had two back-to-back victories in his struggle to regain his job.

On Friday, June 12, Salaita won a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, which he filed last winter against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). A federal judge ordered the university to release thousands of emails that are expected to throw light on why Salaita was fired for tweeting criticisms of Israel’s devastating 51-day siege of Gaza last summer that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead, including 500 children.

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On Saturday, June 13, an overwhelming majority of members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted to censure the UIUC for violating the principle of academic freedom and tenure in Salaita’s firing. A censure vote is a serious black mark against a university “informing Association members, the profession at large, and the public that unsatisfactory conditions of academic freedom and tenure have been found to prevail at these institutions.”

Salaita’s two momentous wins are expected to weigh heavily in his favor in a separate civil rights lawsuit he filed last February against UIUC and its administrators. The suit seeks Salaita’s reinstatement and monetary relief, including compensation for economic and reputational damage he suffered as a result of the university’s actions. The suit alleges that university officials, including Chancellor Phyllis Wise and board of trustees members, violated Salaita’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process of law, and breached its employment contract with him.

The lawsuit also sues an unspecified number of “John Does” for tortious interference—wrongfully interfering with a plaintiff’s contractual or business relationships. This claim is based on an earlier Freedom of Information Act request that yielded emails from pro-Israel donors who made allegedly unlawful threats to stop donating to the university if Salaita was not fired because of his criticism of Israel. The university has consistently denied the claim that they fired Salaita in response to donor pressure.

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Federal Judge Thomas Difanis’s oral order requires university administrators to release some 9,000 emails relating to Salaita, who was fired without explanation two weeks before he was to start teaching in UIUC’s prestigious American Indian Studies program last August. The university had denied Salaita’s FOIA request, claiming it was “unduly burdensome,” but after hearing oral argument Friday from Salaita’s attorneys from the Chicago-based civil rights firm of Loevy & Loevy, co-counsel with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Difanis ordered the release of the documents.

“The university tried to avoid transparency by claiming it was ‘unduly burdensome’ to provide Professor Salaita with emails related to his firing,” said CCR Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “Today, the court agreed with us that release of the emails is in the public interest and ordered the officials to turn them over. We look forward to seeing what the university was so eager to hide.”

The AAUP’s censure vote was expected. In April the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a report finding the UIUC administration and board of trustees violated principles of academic freedom as well as Salaita’s due process rights as a faculty member when they dismissed him just weeks before classes were to begin. The report emphatically rejected UIUC’s claims that its actions were justified by the lack of “civility” in Salaita’s tweets and not the content. Consistent with the AAUP’s findings, the university should admit it was wrong and reinstate Salaita, the report said.

RELATED: AAUP Blasts U. of Illinois for Violating Salaita’s Rights

Salaita has sought reinstatement from the beginning and raised the same point in a letter to the AAUP on the day of the vote. “[D]espite the consensus view—effectively conceded by the administration—that the university’s actions contravened principles of academic freedom, due process and faculty governance, university officials have consistently refused to entertain the just remedy in this situation: my reinstatement,” he wrote.

Salaita also dismantled the university’s alternate claim that his presence would cause “undue disruption” on campus. “They do not point to any disruption I would create, other than possibly intense objection to my views—including objections from donors. In any event, their version of supposed ‘disruption’ is just the other side of the civility coin; it, too, has no place in an academic institution that takes ideas and debate seriously.”

Over the past 10 months Salaita has visited more than 50 different campuses, delivering lectures, interacting with students and employees, meeting with unions and community groups. “Thousands of people have witnessed me interacting with ideological and political opponents with respect, patience, and dignity. They have also witnessed a great amount of insult and vitriol directed at me, to which I responded, as I always do, with calmness and composure. Anybody paying attention during the past year cannot in good faith say I’m averse to, or incapable of handling, disagreement.”

Salaita’s lawyers applauded the AAUP’s censure, saying it not only represented the university’s violations of academic freedom, due process, and shared governance, but also its continued refusal to rectify its actions by restoring Salaita’s job. “The university’s stubbornness continues in spite of academic boycotts, department votes of no confidence in the UIUC administration, student walk-outs, tens of thousands of petition signatures, a federal lawsuit, and the AAUP’s reprimand, suggesting that the UIUC administration is more beholden to donors than it is to due process, academic freedom, and the First Amendment,” they said.

The Salaita story has generated worldwide interest, including in Israel where the Jerusalem Postreported Sunday on the AAUP’s censure vote.