A former Virginia Tech professor fired last year from an Illinois university after he criticized the Israeli bombing of Gaza is asking a federal court to reinstate him.
Steven Salaita, represented by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy filed suit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The suit alleges that in firing Salaita for expressing unpopular political views, the University of Illinois violated his constitutional rights of free speech and due process of law. It further alleges that the university has unlawfully damaged Salaita’s professional reputation and deprived him of his livelihood, and asks that he be reinstated.
“The university’s actions have caused me significant economic, emotional and reputational damage, and have taken a significant toll on my family,” Salaita said in a teleconference with reporters Thursday. “The firing has left my academic career, the primary mechanism for supporting my family, in shambles.”
Salaita said the firing and subsequent labeling of his criticism of Israeli government actions as anti-Semitic have made it impossible for him to find another academic job, and without a university affiliation he cannot qualify for funding to continue his scholarly work, either.
Without steady employment, Salaita said he, his wife and young son have been forced to move in with family members.
“The University of Illinois intends to vigorously defend against … each of Dr. Salaita’s ... meritless claims. The University has attempted to negotiate a settlement for his reasonable losses and expenses, but he has refused those offers,” according to a university statement released Thursday in response to the lawsuit.
Several Illinois university administrators, including Chancellor Phyllis Wise and eight out of nine of its trustees are named as defendants in the lawsuit. It also lists “unknown donors” to the university as defendants. If discovery actions reveal the identities of those donors, they will be added to the suit, Salaita’s attorneys said Thursday.
Salaita was employed as an English professor by Tech in 2013, when he was recruited by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to teach in its Department of American Indian Studies. He accepted the offer, signed an employment contract and resigned from his tenured position at Tech.
But two weeks before he was to begin teaching classes at Illinois, Wise notified him that she would not forward his employment contract to the board of trustees for final approval.
University hiring includes multiple levels of review, and approvals at lower levels typically end with approval by the board. But Wise wrote to Salaita that she did not believe the board would approve his hiring.
The board has since voted against hiring Salaita, and in recent weeks voted against an internal committee recommendation that it reconsider hiring him.
The dismissal came after Salaita criticized the July bombardment of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza strip by Israeli forces, wherein hundreds of civilians were killed, including children.
“Only #Israel can murder around 300 children in the span of a few weeks and insist that it is the victim,” Salaita posted to his Twitter account.
“If you haven’t recently been called a terror-loving anti-Semite, then I’m sorry to say that your critique of #Israel is totally weak,” read another Salaita tweet.
“#Israel’s message to #Obama and #Kerry: we’ll kill as many Palestinians as we want, when we want. p.s.: [expletive] you, pay me,” Salaita tweeted.
These and other tweets were picked up by pro- and anti-Israeli bloggers, and went viral.
“These statements and many more like them demonstrate that Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East,” according to the university’s statement. “As a private citizen, Dr. Salaita has the constitutional right to make any public statement he chooses. Dr. Salaita, however, does not have a constitutional right to a faculty position at the University of Illinois.”
According to correspondence obtained by The Roanoke Times under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the university received numerous complaints from alumni and students about Salaita’s tweets, many characterizing his posts as anti-Semitic and calling for his dismissal.
Salaita and his attorneys have said he has publicly condemned anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds.
“Labeling criticism of Israeli state policy as anti-Semitic is a common tactic used nationwide to attempt to silence this,” Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said Thursday.
Illinois university officials have said in public statements that they dismissed Salaita, not because of the political content of his posts, but because the tone of his speech was “uncivil.” They further questioned whether students would feel comfortable in his classes.
But the “university cannot punish speech merely because it deems it uncivil. First amendment law cannot be more clear,” LaHood said.
“It guarantees the right to express opinions on matters of public concern, no matter the content or the tone of the speech,” LaHood said. “That right is all the more crucial in the context of our universities, where the purpose is the quest for truth.”
The suit also asks the court to allow discovery actions to identify deep-pocket donors, whom the claim alleges improperly interfered with the hiring process.
“Those donors have not yet been identified because the university has refused to reveal its communications with those donors in response to [Illinois] freedom for information requests,” said Anand Swaminathan, an attorney with Chicago firm Loevy & Loevy.
Illinois university officials have publicly denied that they dismissed the professor because of donor pressure.
Salaita filed suit against the Illinois Board of Trustees in November in Champaign County Circuit Court, claiming the board and the university violated Illinois sunshine laws in withholding documents and correspondence related to his firing.
Swaminathan said Thursday that the sunshine lawsuit is still active and a hearing on it is expected next month.
Salaita taught at Tech beginning in 2006 and first garnered national attention in 2013 for a Salon.com commentary that criticized the phrase “support the troops” as a justification for human rights violations abroad and a distraction from the suffering of returning U.S. combat veterans.
The commentary caused a firestorm on social media and spilled over to calls for his censure both from within and without the university. Tech’s administration distanced itself from Salaita’s comments but refused to censure him. Soon after, he accepted the Illinois job offer and resigned from Tech.
Salaita is the son of immigrants from Nicaragua and Jordan. He was born and raised in Bluefield, Va., and is a graduate of Radford University.
Over his academic career, Salaita has published six scholarly books that examine Middle East politics, Arab-American literature and culture, and American treatment of Arab-Americans. His most recent book, a critique of Zionism titled “Israel’s Dead Soul,” was published in 2011. He is an outspoken supporter of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.