Legal victories are a warning to witch hunters

August 20, 2015

Bill Mullen, a professor of English and American Studies at Purdue University and a leading voice in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign on campuses, reports on the latest developments in the case of fired professor Steven Salaita.

A FEDERAL judge earlier this month rejected a motion by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for the court to dismiss Palestinian professor Steven Salaita's lawsuit charging that the university violated its contractual obligations and his free speech when it fired him for tweeting criticisms of Israel's 2014 massacre in Gaza.

Salaita, a highly respected scholar of American Indian studies, was weeks away from starting in his new position at UIUC last summer when Chancellor Phyllis Wise notified him that the administration had not presented his appointment to the Board of Trustees--an effective firing.

In reality, both administrators and Trustees had caved in to pressure in the form of a slander campaign mounted by pro-Israel individuals and organizations, including major donors to UIUC. Among UIUC faculty and students, meanwhile, there was strong support for Salaita, with at least 16 departments--including the American Indian Studies program where Salaita was to teach--voting "no confidence" in Chancellor Wise.

Supporters of Steven Salaita demand his reinstatement at a UIUC rally organized by students
Supporters of Steven Salaita demand his reinstatement at a UIUC rally organized by students (Eric Ruder | SW)

The recent federal ruling now allows Salaita's suit seeking reinstatement of his position to go forward. In the aftermath of the court decision, Wise was terminated from her position at the university.

This sudden reversal of fortune has unraveled UIUC's attempts to silence Salaita, while casting a harsh spotlight on administrators and Trustees who caved to pro-Israel lobbyists in firing Salaita, and then scrambled to cover their tracks with e-mails that have now also been made public.

As a result, Wise now finds herself a disgraced ex-chancellor demoted to faculty, while Salaita is beginning his term as the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut.

As the Center for Constitution Rights, which filed the lawsuit on Salaita's behalf, reported, federal Judge Harry Leinenweber:

firmly rejected the university's claim that it did not have a contract with Professor Salaita, stating, "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."

Leinenweber's decision followed a June ruling by an Illinois court that the university had to disclose hundreds of e-mails relevant to the Salaita firing, and as well as a formal censure of the university by the American Association of University Professors.

Some of the e-mails released reveal Wise consulting with select faculty members about Salaita's termination, though none in the Department of American Indian Studies where he was hired--and possibly attempts to destroy e-mail evidence that might be used in court because of the lawsuit.

THERE ARE several implications flowing from these rulings in support of Salaita.

First, Salaita's lawsuit seeking reinstatement of his position and monetary relief for economic suffering and damage to his reputation can go forward, and may result in victories on both claims. The rulings also mean that Salaita's attorneys will have full access to administration e-mails to help prepare their case.

Second, the court rulings affirm that Salaita's claim for violation of his academic freedom and free speech merit a legal hearing. Thus, they are a victory for academics and workers everywhere. As Salaita himself put in in a prepared statement, "Given the serious ramifications of my termination from a tenured professorship to a wide range of people, I am happy to move forward with this suit in the hope that restrictions on academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance will not become further entrenched because of UIUC's behavior."

Third, the court decisions will serve as a warning to university administrators that trashing faculty rights and free speech while caving in to Zionist lobbyists may come at a cost. As Ali Abunimah, an author and prominent Palestinian rights activists, wrote at Electronic Intifada, "[M]any in academia may look at him and what is happening to Phyllis Wise and decide that the growing cost of prostrating oneself before intolerant, authoritarian pro-Israel groups and donors is not a price worth paying."

Abunimah also points to the Salaita case as a possible turning of the tide against longstanding Zionist efforts to punish university students and faculty who support Palestinian freedom.

For example, in 2014, the AMCHA Initiative, founded by anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjmain at University of California Santa Cruz, published a list of 218 "anti-Israel" professors with expertise in the Middle East. The right-wing campaign also keeps an interactive map at its website of university faculty who have signed the call for academic boycott of Israeli universities.

In Salaita's case, the Simon Weisenthal Center, which claims to monitor anti-Semitism, sent a letter to UIUC President Robert Easter protesting the appointment of "a professor who would liken Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, to 'a radical extremist group who crucifies civilians and then posts the videos, like trophies, on YouTube.'"

The Salaita federal court rulings are part of a string of victories against these intimidation tactics.

On July 23 of this year, for example, the University of California Board of Regents decided it wouldn't consider applying the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism to campus political activities, defying pressure from Zionist groups to do so.

Since 2013, a wave of academic professional organizations--including, most recently, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies this past April--have passed new resolutions supporting a boycott of Israeli Universities. These actions come in the face of attempts at the state and federal levels to punish academics who engage in boycott activities.

Last fall's boycott of UIUC by 5,000 academics in support of Salaita after his firing was a watershed for pro-Palestinian support in the academy. The mass protest represented a tipping point in consciousness among faculty about both the brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the targeting of Palestinian scholars.

This support for Salaita can't be separated from the growing national and international backing for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, including the willingness of university students to become active around the cause. The historic vote last December in support of the boycott of Israel by UAW Local 2865, the union for University of California graduate students employees, is part of a widening campaign of Palestinian solidarity that has also embraced Salaita in his fight against UIUC.

These victories show that only a broadly united coalition of students, teachers and workers for social justice in Palestine can assure that what happened to Steven Salaita never happens again. As UAW Local 2865 put it in their statement last year, when it comes to solidarity with Palestine, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

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