Steven Salaita: Professor Fired for Gaza Tweets

Professor Steven Salaita Fired by University of Illinois for Gaza Tweets

Credit: Jeffrey putney

Credit: Jeffrey putney

In August 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) terminated the tenured appointment of Steven Salaita, a professor hired by the American Indian Studies department. Salaita was fired after he published angry and sarcastic twitter messages regarding the brutality of Israel’s assault on Gaza. The termination occurred a mere two weeks before he was scheduled to begin teaching and after both parties had announced the appointment; Salaita and his wife had resigned from their previous jobs and prepared to move.  

In a letter to the Chancellor and the Board, Palestine Legal, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and other civil rights advocates, argued that UIUC’s action not only ignored the university’s obligation to protect the academic freedom of its faculty, but also threatened to chill academic speech on matters of public concern across the country. 

Records obtained by journalists indicate that the Chancellor was responding to the concerns of big donors, including one who has given hundreds of thousands to the university and is on the board of Hillel. Other evidence points to the involvement of large Israel advocacy organizations like the Jewish Federation in drumming up complaints against Salaita. 

Outrage from the academic community at this utter disregard for the free speech rights of appointed faculty led more than 5,000 academics to boycott UIUC,  over sixteen UIUC departments to take votes of no confidence in the Chancellor, and students to campaign to get Salaita reinstated.  

Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University on January 29, 2015, for violations of his First Amendment and due process rights, breach of contract, and other tort claims. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Loevy and Loevy represent Salaita in the litigation.  

Detailed information about the case, including court documents, letters from academic and civil rights organizations, an can be found at CCR’s case page.  

Relevant Documents

UC Student Union Boycott Challenged

University of California: Graduate Student Union’s Right to Boycott Challenged 

In December 2014, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 – a union representing 13,000 graduate student instructors at the University of California - voted to support the movement for boycott and divestment of Israel, becoming the first major labor union in the U.S. to support BDS. The previous July, the union leadership had passed a general statement in support of BDS. The final statewide membership vote favored a resolution that called on the UC to divest, and called on the International UAW to divest. 65% of voting members supported the resolution for divestment. The resolution also asked members to take an individual anonymous pledge to support the academic boycott, for which 52% of voting members (1136 individual graduate students) voted yes. The vote triggered significant backlash and legal threats.

Political opponents raised false accusations that the resolution would constitute unlawful discrimination and would violate university policy. An opposition website argued, “BDS is potentially illegal,” and claimed the union would be subject to a lawsuit, citing legal threats made against the American Studies Association. The same opposition group circulated a letter to the President of the International UAW falsely claiming that the union’s support for the academic boycott “bars people with Israeli citizenship from joining the union.” These accusations mischaracterized the resolution, ignored the union’s emphatic statement of opposition to all forms of discrimination, and ignored the union’s clear explanation that the boycott targets institutions, not individuals. In response to legal threats, Palestine Legal explained that the union was clearly engaging in First Amendment protected speech and that the boycott did not call for discriminatory action against individuals.

Shortly before the vote, the American Center for Law and Justice sent a letter threatening legal action to the local union leadership, the UAW international, and the University of California alleging the same violations of discrimination law, union law, and university policy. The letter threatened union leaders with “individual liability.” Palestine Legal again confirmed that these claims were baseless because there was no unlawful action, no possibility of individual liability, and the First Amendment protects the union’s action.

In addition to the direct threats against the union and union officials, off-campus organizations like the AMCHA Initiative and the Brandeis Center targeted the statewide UC administration with demands that the university prohibit graduate-student instructors from discussing BDS in the classroom. The AMCHA Initiative generated “over a hundred emails,” according to a letter from the University of California, complaining that the union's activity supporting boycott and divestment violates UC policy on what can be discussed in the classroom.

The university responded to external pressure in September 2014, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, by forwarding AMCHA’s letter to the chancellors of all nine UC campuses. The message from the UC President’s office was vague – it listed policies that govern the conduct of graduate student instructors in the classroom. But given that the university forwarded AMCHA’s call for censorship, the university’s letter could be reasonably construed as a direction to chancellors to monitor and suppress discussion of boycott and divestment. At least one graduate student reported changing course material to avoid relevant content related to Israel/Palestine due to ambiguity over whether the university would prohibit teaching the subject.

Palestine Legal continues to advocate within the UC system to mitigate the chilling effect of attacks on Palestine advocacy and to protect the rights of faculty and students to engage in critical discussion.

Relevant Documents