Steven Salaita, First Amendment Rights, Academic Freedom and the Elephant in the Room


In the summer of 2014, beginning on July 8, Israel launched a 50 day military operation against Gaza, dubbed Operation Protective Edge. People around the world were horrified by the images of carnage coming out of Gaza. Social media proved to be a powerful tool for disseminating information, video and photos, and expressing a shared sense of outrage.

Professor Steven Salaita raised his voice in a series of posts on Twitter condemning Israel’s actions. Administrators at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded by terminating Salaita’s faculty appointment for “incivility” in the language and tone of his tweets. It has been alleged that the university dismissed Salaita in acquiescence to pressure from certain university donors.

In January, an independent fact finding mission commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel determined that, during Operation Protective Edge, over 2,100 residents of Gaza were killed, at least 70% were civilians, over 500 were children, over 11,000 people were wounded and over 100,000 were made homeless. Hospitals, medical centers, shelters and mosques were bombed. The report, titled “No Safe Place,” concluded:

“The attacks were characterised by heavy and unpredictable bombardments of civilian neighbourhoods in a manner that failed to discriminate between legitimate targets and protected populations and caused widespread destruction of homes and civilian property. Such indiscriminate attacks, by aircraft, drones, artillery, tanks and gunships, were unlikely to have been the result of decisions made by individual soldiers or commanders; they must have entailed approval from top-level decision-makers in the Israeli military and/or government.”

These findings are supported in a report released on May 4, by the Israeli group Breaking the Silence. The report contains graphic testimony from more than 60 Israeli soldiers describing attacks on civilians and reveals a “disturbing picture of the IDF’s policy of indiscriminate fire.”

This is what Steven Salaita railed against in his posts on Twitter, using language severely critical of the Israeli government, which UIUC donors and administrators found to be impermissible.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, Salaita’s termination “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.” The CCR further wrote:

“Professor Steven Salaita was a tenured English professor at Virginia Tech University, whose scholarship focused on colonialism, militarism and occupation and who had written well-regarded books studying Arab-American literature and criticizing Zionism.  It was on the basis of his excellent scholarly record that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offered Professor Salaita a tenured position in the University’s American Indian Studies department.  Based on the contract he had with the University of Illinois, Professor Salaita resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech University and had prepared to move his family to Illinois.  Yet, one week before school was to start, Professor Salaita received a terse letter from University Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise, summarily informing him that his appointment was terminated.”

The CCR is representing Salaita in the lawsuit he filed in January against UIUC trustees, administrators and donors for violations of his First Amendment right to free speech and breach of his employment contract. The lawsuit is still in its early stages.

* * *

On April 8, Steven Salaita gave a talk at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, sponsored by the Rachel Corrie Foundation and The United Faculty of Evergreen. Dr. Salaita told the audience of students, faculty and other community members that his firing from UIUC involved a constellation of issues: restriction of academic freedom, corporatization of academe, and the decline of faculty governance over issues including hiring and firing.

But the “elephant in the room,” said Salaita, is the “systematic marginalization of narratives in support of Palestinian rights in academic spaces.” He said that “a long list of people over a 30 year period” have been fired, denied tenure, or not hired due to speaking on behalf of Palestinians.

Salaita said the UIUC Administration used the allegation of “incivility” to justify his dismissal. He said the predominant, normative use of “civility” is to shut down opposition to policy, opposition to the status quo. “Civility tends to connote manners, etiquette.” He said administrators love the concept because of its ambiguity: “There is zero burden of explaining the meaning of the term,” he said, and added, “No legal precedent predicates free speech on tone.”

In the context of American Indian Studies, said Salaita, a discussion of European colonization involves a binary narrative of colonial logic: “civility versus savagery.” For a university to invoke civility in its attack on an American Indian Studies professor is “insidious,” he said. “It reproduces the colonial logic, treating it as common wisdom. Using civility as a cover connotes something other than a specific intent behind the action of firing a professor.”

That perspective is echoed in an investigative report published on April 28, by the American Association of University Professors, a prominent academic organization, which found that Salaita was “dismissed” from a position he had accepted and that the UIUC administration violated principles of academic freedom and Salaita’s due process rights as a faculty member. On the subject of civility, the report states:

“Historians have shown that over the centuries … the notion of civility consistently operates to constitute relations of power. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning — a meaning that serves to delegitimize the words and actions of those to whom it is applied. So, to take one example, students engaged in peaceful sit-ins in the 1960s in Greensboro, North Carolina, were deemed by local police to be behaving in an uncivil manner. Or to take another from the nineteenth century, Western European imperial powers often justified their conquests as efforts to ‘civilize’ native populations.”

The AAUP, over its 100 year history, has determined that professors “have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence.” The AAUP found that dismissing Professor Salaita for incivility in addressing the larger community was in violation of this principle.

On the subject of tone, the AAUP report asserts: “Whether it is a matter of First Amendment rights or of the principles of academic freedom, there is concurrence on the dangers to democracy of attempting to outlaw emotionally provocative speech.”

Thus the content and tone of Salaita’s tweets are immaterial in defending his First Amendment rights and academic freedom. But the context of the tweets, a massacre of defenseless civilians — who have already endured a brutal 48 year Israeli occupation, an 8 year military blockade and economic siege, and repeated massive military assaults — is key to understanding Salaita’s passion.

The effects of the 2014 assault are still felt, including inadequate food, housing or potable water. Gaza has endured a “cold wet winter without electricity. Israel bombed the only power plant,” said Salaita. He said images during the campaign of “children eviscerated, incinerated” gave him nightmares. He spoke of photos of ice cream freezers storing corpses of children because the morgue ran out of space. “Gaza had no electricity. The images of it hit me profoundly. There is nothing civil about bodies of children stored in an ice cream freezer.”

* * *

During the Q&A, a student asked Dr. Salaita if, considering what happened to him at UIUC, he would advise using social media to speak out against Israel or Zionism, stand up for Palestinians and condemn atrocities. Salaita said it was difficult to advise others, but offered this: “Always remain aware that in an increasingly repressive political system there can always be consequences for speaking against Israel. If you are going to condemn Israel or criticize Zionism, somebody is going to get punished.”

Professor Therese Saliba was in the audience and commented that she and Salaita first met in December 2013, when the American Studies Association voted to join the boycott of Israeli educational institutions. She asked, “You were instrumental in that decision; is it possible that you were punished more for that than the tweets?”

Salaita answered that there is some evidence of that. He said there have been “conscious attempts to punish advocates of BDS [Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel].” He said BDS is “a concern of the Israeli state’s political Zionist apparatus.”

As occurred with his tweets last August, Salaita said that Israel supporters will pore over everything you say, every line you write, “look for one line to decontextualize and make it seem anti-semitic or supportive of violence.” They do this because “BDS has been remarkably effective.”

* * *

Salaita’s dismissal by UIUC has met with criticism on multiple fronts including scathing editorial commentary, condemnation from multiple prestigious academic organizations, and an academic boycott. According to the CCR, more than 5,000 academics have pledged to boycott the university, more than three dozen scheduled talks and conferences have been cancelled, and 16 academic departments at UIUC have voted no confidence in the administration. Colleen Flaherty, writing at Inside Higher Ed, notes that the AAUP report condemning Salaita’s dismissal “paves the way” for a general membership vote on a motion of censure against UIUC at the group’s annual conference in June, which “could amount to the biggest consequence yet for the university.”

Dr. Salaita concluded his presentation on a hopeful note when he was asked if he was surprised by the backlash against UIUC for his dismissal and if he felt optimistic about a broader shift in awareness around Israel, Palestine and Arabs. Salaita answered “yes” on both counts and added that it was “strange to now be a part of the story.”

He noted the great diversity in the movement, including many Jews: “The shift is impossible to ignore. JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] is kicking ass.” He said Palestinian solidarity organizing is multiethnic, cross-generational, cross-sectional; it is in solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter.

“A certain sort of power has shifted.” Salaita attributed this to “a great strength of effort over so many years by students and academics across the country, as well as the hard work done off campus by groups like the Rachel Corrie Foundation.”

* * *

As the Palestinian solidarity movement has gained momentum and popular support, Israel’s advocates are increasingly abandoning efforts to argue their case on the merits. On June 4, a law was passed in South Carolina barring public entities from contracting with companies participating in BDS. The law was written with the facilitation of an anti-BDS group called the Israel Allies Foundation. In a press release on June 4, IAF Executive Director, Willem Griffioen, states, “Our work on this issue has only just begun.” Similar anti-BDS legislation is being pursued in 18 other states. As well, committees in both houses of Congress have adopted measures requiring U.S. trade negotiators to make rejection of BDS a principal trade objective in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

“While the BDS movement is winning in the court of public opinion, powerful supporters of Israel are using ‘lawfare’ to win through the court system” and “edging closer to the criminalization of advocating for Palestinian rights and against occupation,” writes John Dworkin at Mondoweiss. He cites Senate Bill SB1761, passed by both houses of the Illinois General Assembly on May 18, which requires state retirement systems to divest “all direct holdings” from companies boycotting Israel. The bill fallaciously characterizes BDS as anti-semitic and, as Dworkin argues, threatens core First Amendment rights.

As Steven Salaita told his Olympia audience, when opponents of the movement for Palestinian liberation must resort to attacks on First Amendment rights and academic freedom, it is a sign of the movement’s success. The AAUP’s damning report and Salaita’s lawsuit against UIUC for his unjust dismissal are substantial responses to those attacks.

Sandy Allen lives in Olympia. She recently joined the Rachel Corrie Foundation Board of Directors.

For an in-depth analysis of the tweets for which Salaita lost his faculty appointment at UIUC, see “Reading Salaita in Illinois—by Way of Cary Nelson (part 1),”  by Phan Nguyen at Mondoweiss.


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