The Salaita Lawsuit

February 3, 2015

By KC Johnson at Minding The Campus

As expected, anti-Israel activist and purported American Indian Studies expert Steven Salaita has filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois. My take on the merits of Salaita’s case remains essentially the same: (1) FIRE isabsolutely correct in the chilling effects of Illinois’ “civility” standard; and (2) the Salaita case is most comparable to that of Ward Churchill, another qualification-challenged professor hired for reasons unrelated to his academic talent. Just as Colorado knew or should have known that Churchill had no business as a tenured professor, but didn’t have any problem keeping him on staff until he caused a p.r. problem for the school, so too would Salaita’s hire have gone through but for the p.r. backlash to his fanatical tweets.

In that respect, just as for Colorado with Churchill, Illinois had little excuse for not finalizing Salaita’s appointment. And just as with Churchill and Colorado, the appropriate response should have been appointing an overseer to ensure that, in future, the Illinois American Studies Program didn’t hire transparently unqualified candidates whose sole qualification appeared to be agreement on Middle Eastern matters with the departmental majority.

Two aspects of the lawsuit deserve a closer look. First, the university came out with the strongest defense of its actions to date. The American Indian Studies Program, the university (correctly) asserted, sought to hire a professor who “lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty.”

This admission raises three questions. First, why did the university consider Salaita’s tweets—vile as they were—evidence of lack of fitness, but not this type of “scholarship”? Second, what steps has the university taken to ensure that such inappropriate hires don’t occur again? In particular, will the university exercise greater oversight over future hires by the American Indian Studies Department? Third, has the university reached out to other qualified candidates who applied for the American Indian Studies position to apologize?

Academic freedom means not only that professors shouldn’t be fired for expressing controversial opinions: it also means that professors shouldn’t be hired for expressing political viewpoints that a departmental majority shares. The qualified applicants for this job—professors whose actual expertise came in American Indian Studies, not diatribes against Israel—had their academic freedom violated by the way in which the American Indian Studies faculty conducted the search. Based on that record, why should any applicant expect fair treatment from the University of Illinois personnel process?

The second notable item from lawsuit news came in Salaita’s targets—not merely the university and the trustees, but also donors who might have opposed his appointments and might have said they wouldn’t continue to donate to the University of Illinois if Salaita joined the faculty.

Salaita’s argument regarding the donors is extraordinary, and I can’t imagine how any judge could take it seriously. He appears to believe that donors to a public university must continue to give money to the school, even if they conclude that Illinois turned a blind eye to hiring someone who “lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty.” And what of the free speech rights of those who don’t share Salaita’s belief that Zionists have been guilty of “transforming antisemitism [sic] from something horrible into something honorable since 1948”?

In Salaita’s world, donors who might not have wanted to continue financially supporting a university that might hire an unqualified professor who dabbles in anti-Semitism could stop donating if and only if they didn’t tell the university the reasons for their action. But once they explained their rationale, they became subjects of a lawsuit. It seems as if in Salaita’s version of the First Amendment, he has free speech rights, but his critics must remain silent.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign