From the Trenches: Salaita Will Take U of I to Court

“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.

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Last year, I heard Professor Steven Salaita speak on a panel at the University of Chicago. His talk on academic freedom and post-colonial struggles was thought-provoking and inspiring. It gave me goosebumps. “Where do I sign up for one of this guy’s classes?” I thought.

But by then, he wasn’t a “professor.” Two weeks before, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had withdrawn it’s formal offer of employment after Salaita, a West-Virginia born Palestinian-American hired as a tenured professor of American Indian studies, tweeted his disgust with Israel’s extended bombardment of Gaza in 2014. Roughly 2,200 people were killed; less than 100 of those casualties were Israelis.

Today, in a major win for academic freedom in our increasingly anti-intellectual country, a federal decided that U of I was full of shit and that Salaita’s case would be allowed to move forward. A press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights recounted the decision:

“If the Court accepted the University’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist.” The court further rejected the university’s attempt to dismiss Professor Salaita’s First Amendment claims, finding that his tweets “implicate every ‘central concern’ of the First Amendment.”

His case has been supported by many of The Academy’s mightiest heavyweights, from Angela Davis and Cornel West, the Modern Language Association and 16 academic departments around the country, who have condemned U of I’s actions.

After Salaita’s dismissal, U of I administration, in cahoots with a group of pro-Israel students, alum and most importantly, furious donors who threatened to stop sending the school fat, tax-deductible checks, claimed that Salaita’s tweets constituted hate speech and anti-semitism, which compromised his ability to create teach his students effectively (connection between American Indian studies and Palestine still forthcoming, I presume?). Plenty of other hypocritical claims were made, including by president Robert Easter, who said Salaita’s tweets proved he was “incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions would be given equal consideration.” My guess is that “conflicting opinions” is Latin for “opinions held by our donors”?

U of I reps went on to claim that Salaita had never been hired by the university, despite the fact that he had formally accepted the position in October and had already left his job at Virginia Tech (where he endured a similar free-speech controversy and was supported by his administration). In response to the withdrawn offer, Salaita filed a freedom of speech lawsuit, saying U of I fired him based on the views he expressed in his tweets, a claim U of I has since admitted to, though the administration has tried (as of today, unsuccessfully) to have the case dismissed.

Salaita has said he will continue to pursue the case “in the hope that restrictions on academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance will not become further entrenched because of [U of I’s] behavior.” Because the lawsuit (unfortunately, in my view) is not a win for the Palestinian struggle. The decision to allow Salaita’s case to proceed is a victory for our ever-infringed-upon First Amendment rights, and in a society of people who claim to be free-speech absolutists, it’s good to be reminded of that the freedom of speech extends to everyone–not just those with power and influence.


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