The Steven Salaita story is back in the news. The professor—who made headlines in 2014 when the University of Illinois rescinded his job offer for controversial remarks he made on Twitter about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—wants to tell you why he actively chooses incivility.
Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salaita, who filed a federal lawsuit against the university earlier this year, recalls the tweets that got him in trouble and accusations of incivility that followed:
One tweet read: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” In another, I wrote, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”
It has since become popular to call me uncivil. Or intemperate. Or inappropriate. Or angry. Or aggressive. It’s unseemly to describe myself, but because “unseemly” is an improvement over what many people now call me — why not? I am a devoted husband and a loving father. I never talk out of turn. I deliberate for long periods before making significant decisions. As is normal for somebody born and raised in Southern Appalachia, I call everybody “sir” or “ma’am.” I do not raise my voice at people. I am deeply shy and chronically deferential. That is to say, I am civil to a fault.
While FIRE takes no position on Salaita’s character or his political opinions, we have said repeatedly that calls for campus civility, whether formalized in university policies or informally demanded by campus administrators, are problematic.
First, these requirements often restrict speech deemed “psychologically abusive” or “rude” by another student or faculty member. Because these determinations are made subjectively by the listener, civility policies are extremely susceptible to abuse. This is particularly true in the age of concerns over “microaggressions” which, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explained, “can lead to a ‘hostile learning environment,’ which UC — and the federal government — views as legally actionable. This is stuff you could get disciplined or fired for, especially if you aren’t a tenured faculty member.”
Put simply, despite the fact that uncivil speech might be constitutionally protected, it can get you in big trouble.
Salaita’s case is a perfect example of how these civility rationales are abused to target specific, unpopular viewpoints. Then-chancellor Phyllis Wise, who resigned after learning the university intended to fire her, publicly maintained Salaita wasn’t targeted over the Twitter controversy. But numerous e-mails later released by the university (after an internal ethics investigation revealed administrators were using their personal email accounts in an attempt to insulate the messages from FOIA requests) tell a different story. In short, as Inside Higher Ed reported, FIRE was right to be suspicious about the Salaita affair:
For example, an email from Wise just prior to her telling Salaita he could not take up his position said, “Let me add that the hateful, totally unprofessional and unacceptable Twitters have appeared mainly since July. This is after the decision to hire him and after his acceptance of our offer. It reveals a side of a person that I believe makes it difficult for him to contribute to the culture of respect, collegiality, collaboration that we hold so dear,” she wrote.
The emails also make clear that Illinois acted against Salaita on the basis of the Twitter comments. This could be important legally as he has maintained — with backing from numerous academic and civil liberties groups — that his posts are protected expression under the First Amendment. But Wise in her emails suggests that there are limits to protected expression.
In one, she says, “The real question for me is when does freedom of speech cross the line into hateful, harassing unprofessional speech and action.”
The second problem with civility mandates is that they discourage robust, passionate debate on the most important issues of our day. As Justice William Douglas wrote in the landmark case Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), uncivil speech is precisely the kind of speech that can make the biggest impact:
[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.
Salaita says his choice of strong words to express a strong condemnation of what he calls “war crimes” is itself a form of expression:
My tweets might appear uncivil, but such a judgment can’t be made in an ideological or rhetorical vacuum. Insofar as “civil” is profoundly racialized and has a long history of demanding conformity, I frequently choose incivility as a form of communication. This choice is both moral and rhetorical.
In most conversations about my termination, Israel’s war crimes go unmentioned, yet it is impossible to understand my tweets without that necessary context. My strong language — and I should point out that much of my language is also gentle — arises in response to demonstrable acts of brutality that in a better world would raise widespread rancor. You tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of children or using impeccable manners to justify their murder. I no more want to be “respectable” according to the epistemologies of colonial wisdom than I want to kill innocent people with my own hands. Both are articulations of the same moral rot.
Again, FIRE has no position on Salaita’s political opinions. But Salaita obviously believes that a statement that’s meek and measured isn’t going to inspire change. He wants anger and action, and he believes “incivility” is the way to make it happen. Justice William Douglas would certainly recognize this sentiment.
You can read Salaita’s full essay on The Chronicle’s website. FIRE will continue to monitor developments in the story.