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Does Free Speech Have a Palestine Exception? Dismissed Professor Steven Salaita Speaks Out

StoryOctober 07, 2015
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Guests
Steven Salaita

is the Edward W. Said chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut. Last year, his job offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was withdrawn after he posted tweets harshly critical of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza. His book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, has just been published.

Maria LaHood

is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.


A new report by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal has documented hundreds of cases of Palestinian rights activists in the United States being harassed, disciplined, fired, sued, censored or threatened for their advocacy around Palestine. Eighty-five percent of these cases targeted students or scholars. We look at the case of Steven Salaita. Last year, his job offer for a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was withdrawn after he posted tweets harshly critical of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza. The school had come under pressure from donors, students, parents and alumni critical of Salaita’s views, with some threatening to withdraw financial support. His case caused a firestorm, with thousands of academics signing petitions calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, several lecturers canceling appearances and the American Association of University Professors calling the school’s actions "inimical to academic freedom and due process." In August, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned after she was implicated in a scandal that involved attempting to hide emails detailing Salaita’s ouster. We speak with Steven Salaita and attorney Maria LaHood, who is representing Salaita in his ongoing lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with professor and author Steven Salaita. Last year, his job offer for a tenured position for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was withdrawn after he posted tweets harshly critical of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza. The school had come under pressure from donors, from students, parents and alumni critical of Salaita’s views, with some threatening to withdraw financial support. The move was criticized both in and outside of the school, with administrators accused of political censorship.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of academics signed petitions calling for Professor Salaita’s reinstatement, and several lecturers canceled appearances at the school in protest. The American Association of University Professors called the school’s actions "inimical to academic freedom and due process." In August, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned after she was implicated in a scandal that involved attempting to hide emails detailing Salaita’s ouster. Also in August, a federal judge allowed for a lawsuit filed by Professor Salaita against the university to proceed.

We’re joined now by Steven Salaita, the Edward Said chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut. His book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, has just been published. Also with us, his attorney, Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Salaita, talk about these latest developments. What has taken place around your case?

STEVEN SALAITA: So, over the summer, there was an entire sort of Freedom of Information Act dump of emails that led to, I guess, an intensification of the scandalization of the situation. It led to the resignation of Chancellor Wise and then the—her second-in-command, the provost. And what we—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened.

STEVEN SALAITA: The emails that were released sort of pointed to a wide range of interests sort of converging around the issue of my Twitter feed, which I find both amusing and mortifying simultaneously. And there was donor pressure, and there was a conscious effort to circumvent the open records laws, but also a conscious effort to undermine all of the normal processes of faculty governance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There were allegations that the chancellor and others at the school were using private email accounts to avoid having their conversations about you and the reaction to you accessible through public information requests?

AMY GOODMAN: Hmmm, this is sounding presidential.

STEVEN SALAITA: Yes, exactly. And then they actually said, in writing, you know, "I’m deleting the emails as I send them."

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the chancellor was forced to resign. And explain who else. The board also changed?

STEVEN SALAITA: No, nobody from the board has resigned. The former chairman of the Board of Trustees, Christopher Kennedy, he rotated off.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Kennedy, Robert Kennedy son?

STEVEN SALAITA: That’s correct, yes. He was the chairman of the board that presided over, I guess, my termination last August, but he has rotated off. So, the chancellor is gone, and the provost is gone, but the board remains intact.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria LaHood, the status of the lawsuit and the grounds upon which you are pursuing legal action against the university?

MARIA LAHOOD: Professor Salaita’s case against the university is for his breach of contract as well as violations of his First Amendment rights and his due process rights. And the university attempted to dismiss it, claiming there was no contract, claiming he had—you know, his tweets weren’t protected. And the court rejected that, saying, "Of course there was a contract. If there wasn’t, the academic hiring process as we know it would fail to—would cease to exist." And, of course, his tweets are protected by the First Amendment. They implicate every central concern. They, you know, are in the public interest. They were in a public forum. And, you know, the university acknowledges that it was the tweets, were the reason for his termination.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you hoping to come back to the United States and teach at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign?

STEVEN SALAITA: Sure. That’s the primary concern of the lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened, for those who haven’t followed your case—

STEVEN SALAITA: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: —where you were working, and then the job offer, etc.

STEVEN SALAITA: OK, OK. I was at Virginia Tech as a tenured English professor. I was offered the job at the University of Illinois. I subsequently signed a contract at the University of Illinois, then countersigned, and everything was set up for me to move and begin my position. Within around a week of my physical move from Virginia to Illinois, I received a termination letter, out of nowhere, from the chancellor, which sort of threw my life into disarray. I all of a sudden didn’t have an income and health insurance or a place to live. We had to cancel the contract on—

AMY GOODMAN: Your whole family was moving.

STEVEN SALAITA: Yeah, my whole family was moving. And so we ended up living with my parents. And then, you know, after around a year of sort of going to different places around the country and speaking about the situation, I was offered a one-year visiting professorship at the American University of Beirut. And that’s where I am now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the firestorm this has created in academic circles. The American Association of University Professors obviously has come out in support of you. But there was a particular professor at University of Illinois, Cary Nelson, who was a former leader of the AUP, who has—who basically has supported the university, even though he himself in the past had supported Ward Churchill after Ward Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado, has supported Norman Finkelstein when Norman has been gone after, in terms of tenure situations by other universities. Your response to Professor Nelson’s stance?

STEVEN SALAITA: I think it’s a fantastic example of what a blind ideological commitment to Israel will lead one into. And so, he made a choice between the preservation of academic freedom and the preservation of Israel’s reputation, and he chose the latter. It’s no more complicated than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by the level of the response in support of you being allowed to teach at the University of Illinois, both at the student level, university associations? Explain all the levels that came to your defense. And what most surprised you?

STEVEN SALAITA: What most surprised me was the revelations of how many people were working behind the scenes on the university’s side to prevent this hire from happening, to prevent me from actually arriving on campus. That, to me, was most surprising. But I wasn’t expecting this intensity of response. As I write in the book, you know, I expected kind of academic trade publications to be interested in it, you know, people in the fields of American Indian studies, people interested in Palestine. But it sort of took off. And I think it signals the fact that there has long been a profound frustration with the moves towards corporatization that are happening in universities, and a lot of people see this as a very explicit point around which they can rally.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Maria LaHood, the demand, ultimately, of this lawsuit and where it goes from here? And has there been a precedent for someone who has been hired, fired from a university, then going back to teach there?

MARIA LAHOOD: I mean, first of all, Professor Salaita’s case is unprecedented. I mean, the fact that he was summarily dismissed because of his tweets is unprecedented. So we’re dealing with a situation that hasn’t happened before. But, you know, the lawsuit seeks his reinstatement. It seeks compensation for all of his losses, and punitive damages, because, you know, as we’ve seen with the emails coming out, the university knew exactly what it was doing. You know, Chancellor Wise, even before she sent Professor Salaita the termination letter, said, "Well, whoever sends it, I’m going to be deposed." She knew. She knew that, you know, they knew what they were doing. And I don’t want to put all of the blame on her. It wasn’t just her who was responsible. The board was also responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, didn’t the chancellor say she was carrying the water of, what, the board chair, of Mr. Kennedy?

MARIA LAHOOD: In emails, yeah, she did. She said that, you know, she supposed to put forth a united front, but that was—you know, she was doing what the board wanted. And, you know, the board has sort of skated free, and Kennedy himself got an award of courage by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for leading the charge in firing Professor Salaita. So, she’s not the only one responsible at the university.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you think that the revelations of the emails and, of course, of the firing of the chancellor now, whether that’s going to strengthen your case, if it ever comes to trial?

MARIA LAHOOD: Well, I think the fact that, you know, all of this—all of these emails have come out—and they should continue to come out. We haven’t—you know, we’re in the middle of discovery now, so we’re expecting more documents, more records. You know, we’ll have depositions. Who knows what more we’ll find out? So I think, hopefully, the university is in a position where they don’t want to just have resignations, but they also want to do justice and actually reinstate Professor Salaita.

AMY GOODMAN: A new report by the nonprofit Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights has documented hundreds of cases of Palestinian rights activists in the United States being harassed, disciplined, fired, sued, censored or threatened for their advocacy around Palestine. Eighty-five percent of these cases targeted students or scholars. Professor Salaita, can you talk about this and your own case?

STEVEN SALAITA: It’s a stunning report, although its findings aren’t necessarily surprising for those of us who have been involved in the issues of Palestine advocacy on campus. We know that there’s long been forms of repression. In some cases, there’s been criminalization. You know, people lose jobs. They don’t get tenured. You know, Students for Justice in Palestine get their chapter shut down sometimes. So, you know, it’s fantastic and groundbreaking to have a singular document that chronicles some of these incidents. And it finds nearly 300 incidents in less than two years, which is a pretty stunning number.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the chancellor resign, or was she fired, by the way?

MARIA LAHOOD: She resigned. But, you know, she resigned under a deal in which she was supposed to receive what was allegedly the remainder of her contract amount, but the board rejected that—$400,000. So, but she still gets to—you know, she’ll on a paid sabbatical for a year, and she’ll get to return to her $300,000 faculty position, unlike Professor Salaita.

AMY GOODMAN: And the timetable of this lawsuit? When would you expect to be back at the University of Illinois, or teaching there for the first time?

MARIA LAHOOD: We’re still—you know, we’re still engaged in discovery. We don’t—you know, litigation is unfortunately slow.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank both of you for being with us. Professor Steven Salaita is now Edward Said chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut. Last year, his job offer from the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign was withdrawn after he posted tweets critical of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza. His book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom. And thank you so much to Maria LaHood.

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