At a press conference this morning, Professor Steven Salaita and his attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Loevy & Loevy announced that Professor Salaita has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UICU) administration, Board of Trustees, and unidentified donors “for violation of his constitutional rights, including free speech and due process.”

Professor Salaita was terminated from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) in August of 2014 over personal tweets about Israel’s attack on Gaza. Initially, Professor Salaita was given no reason for the termination, but university officials admitted later that the “uncivil tone” of the tweets was the cause. Professor Salaita had already resigned from his position as associate professor of English at Virginia Tech and accepted the position at UIUC when he was told by Chancellor Phyllis Wise that he was no longer being hired.  The university had already begun the process of hiring Professor Saliata and scheduling classes he would teach in the Fall. On September 16, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted 8-1 to not appoint Professor Salaita as a tenured professor in American Indian studies on the Urbana campus. Two weeks ago the Board of Trustees refused Professor Salaita’s petition to reconsider and said that the decision was final. The suit filed today asks for “reinstatement by completing his appointment to the tenured faculty and for monetary relief including compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs.”

During the press conference, Professor Salaita explained the hardships this had taken on his family and academic career.

This has done economic and emotional damage to me and my family…My academic career was left in shambles. I lost my previous tenured position and was unable to find another position in a university. Without this source of income, my wife, son, and I were forced to move in with my parents and are struggling to make ends meet…I am only looking forward to joining the faculty at the University of Illinois to continue my teaching career.

There was significant controversy around the reasons for his termination. Pro-Israel groups including the  local Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center were accused of lobbying for his dismissal. But the most significant interference came from donors who met with university officials including Chancellor Phyllis Wise to pressure the university to terminate Professor Salaita’s contract. As the lawsuit contends,

Defendants JOHN DOE DONORS TO THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS are unknown contributors  to the university who threatened future donations to pressure the university to terminate Professor Salaita. They each communicated with university officials regarding Steven Salaita’s employment and demanded that the university breach its contractual obligations and promises to Professor Salaita or else they would withhold financial contributions to the university.

These contributors are called  “JOHN DOE DONORS” in the lawsuit as the university has refused multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests for this information. The attorneys intend to release the names of these donors as part of the judication of this case. Maria LaHood, Senior Staff Attorney from CCR, stated in response to whether these “donors” may also include representatives of pro-Israel organizations accusing Professor Salaita of anti-semitism and lobbying for his termination “that possibility would certainly be part of the discovery process.” As Professor Salaita’s attorneys indicated the “claims of anti-semitism were completely unfounded.”

Poster from campus speaking tour in 2014.
Poster from campus speaking tour in 2014.

Last October, Professor Saiaita conducted a speaking tour of Chicago-area campuses organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine to defend his right to freedom of speech and to criticize this attack on academic freedom. He made comparisons between his own situation and the subject of colonialism that he studies, saying that the university was suppressing a minority position. Professor Salaita, a Palestinian-American who studies colonialism and the Middle East, has consistently said he is not anti-Semitic, as some have claimed, but that he “opposes the policies of the state of Israel.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), along with the Chicago civil rights law firm of Loevy & Loevy, is representing Professor Steven Salaita because “ Salaita’s termination, which functions as a penalty for his speech on an issue of public concern, constitutes “viewpoint discrimination,” a violation of the First Amendment, and also threatens academic freedom by punishing a faculty member for speaking as a citizen on a critical issue”. With this complaint filed in federal court today, Professor Salaita’s legal team is accusing the University and its officials of violations of his First Amendment right to free speech and other constitutional rights and breach of his employment contract.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.