Too radical even for academia, former professor Steven Salaita, an outspoken critic of Israel and author of Israel’s Dead Soul, may already have a lawyer if he wants to sue the school that dumped him.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a 48-year-old group known in recent years for its litigation to stop the extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, hinted that it will sue the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign if it doesn’t restore Salaita’s job offer.
Salaita had already left his position as an English professor at Virginia Tech when UI abruptly rescinded its job offer before its board of trustees could approve him, as The College Fix reported. That followed an outcry over recent tweets by Salaita, concerning Israel’s behavior in Gaza, that one colleague-to-be called “venomous” and “over-the-top.”
At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014
Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already. #Gaza
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 19, 2014
Though UI hasn’t confirmed why it pulled the offer, the Center for Constitutional Rights contends it was because of Salaita’s Twitter account.
“Your seemingly unprecedented decision to terminate the appointment of a tenured professor on such grounds violates Professor Salaita’s clearly established constitutional rights as well as elementary principles of academic freedom to which the University purportedly subscribes,” the center told UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise in a letter on Thursday.
Citing a plethora of Supreme Court precedents, the letter said that an attempt by university officials to “repress or penalize speech on a matter of public concern such as Israel/Palestine because of disagreement with its message is impermissible ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ a serious First Amendment violation.”
The center told Wise it was “no defense to your attempted viewpoint censorship to assert that the manner in which Professor Salaita expressed his views was uncivil or harsh or that the substance or style of his communication would offend his audience.”
Comparing UI’s action to “the McCarthy era,” the letter said: “In taking such precipitous action, you have sent the anti-democratic message to your faculty and students that censorship – rather than engagement, reflection or critique – is an appropriate response when political orthodoxy is challenged.”
The center’s “mission and history” Web page says it takes on cases without “solely” considering “a calculus of victory.” It has pursued some cases “tenaciously for decades before success was achieved,” and it will “continue to take these types of cases because justice demands it.”
‘Crosses a Line into Inciting Violence’
Salaita has drawn support not only from the Arab Daily News, which called UI’s rescinded job offer a “hate crime,” but also a leading academic group.
The American Association of University Professors’ Illinois academic-freedom committee said UI’s behavior constituted “a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country,” and it accused the school of denying Salaita due process.
“Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach,” the AAUP committee said. “These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching.”
A former president of AAUP and UI professor, Cary Nelson, has publicly backed the school for rescinding the job offer.
Nelson told Inside Higher Ed, which broke the news of the rescinded job offer, that he did “not know of another search committee that had to confront a case where the subject matter of academic publications overlaps with a loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media.”
Nelson later posted a comment regarding Salaita’s fitness to teach on the Inside Higher Ed article.
“When Salaita tweets ‘If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being’ he issues a judgment about his future students that would justify them believing they would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class,” Nelson wrote in the comment.
Nelson called another Salaita line “hate speech” and continued: “When he retweets a suggestion that a well-known American reporter should be met with ‘the point of a shiv’ he crosses a line into inciting violence.”
Nelson was apparently referring to this tweet regarding Atlantic national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, who once served in the Israel Defense Forces, which Salaita retweeted and “favorited.”
Jeffrey goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv
— Free Palestine (@djkilllist) July 7, 2014
UI and the Center for Constitutional Rights did not respond to requests for comment from The College Fix.
College Fix contributor Kyle Brooks is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.