June 12, 2015, Champaign, IL – Today, a federal judge ordered the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) to release emails regarding UIUC’s firing of tenured professor Steven Salaita over his personal tweets criticizing the Israeli government’s 2014 bombing of Gaza. Documents obtained through previous FOIA requests revealed pressure from donors, who threatened to withdraw financial support from UIUC if the university did not fire Salaita. The judge ruled today from the bench, following oral argument in a FOIA lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)’s co-counsel, the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy, on behalf of Professor Salaita that sought university emails, including emails from donors, which the university had refused to turn over. The FOIA case is separate from the civil rights lawsuit against UIUC challenging his firing, Salaita v. Kennedy.
“The university tried to avoid transparency by claiming it was ‘unduly burdensome’ to provide Professor Salaita with emails related to his firing,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “Today, the court agreed with us that release of the emails is in the public interest and ordered the officials to turn them over. We look forward to seeing what the university was so eager to hide.”
In January, Professor Salaita also filed a civil rights case against UIUC, top officials, and unnamed donors. The suit seeks Salaita’s reinstatement and monetary relief, including compensation for economic and reputational damage he suffered as a result of the university’s actions. The suit alleges that university officials, including the Chancellor and University trustees, violated Salaita’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process of law, and breached its employment contract with him. The suit also names donors who, based on emails made public pursuant to other FOIA requests, unlawfully threatened future donations to the university if it did not fire Professor Salaita on account of his political views. Those donors are not currently identified by name.
After a national search and interview process, Professor Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor of indigenous studies, had been offered a tenured faculty position in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was due to start working in two weeks when he received a letter from Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre terminating his appointment, without notice or explanation. Salaita and his wife had already quit their jobs at Virginia Tech University, where he was tenured. University officials have since acknowledged that their decision was based on Salaita’s tweets about Israel’s military assault on Gaza, which they viewed as “uncivil.”
In April, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a report, in which it found that Salaita’s firing violated principles of academic freedom and due process. The AAUP is also scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to officially censure UIUC for Salaita’s firing.
“We are very happy about the judge’s decision today and are hopeful that this is the end of the university’s delay in releasing documents,” said Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy, who argued in court today. “The public will now have a chance to put public statements by the Chancellor and other university officials about Professor Salaita’s firing to the test.”
Since Salaita’s firing, the University’s leadership has faced increasing nationwide criticism from within the academic community. Sixteen academic departments of the university have voted no confidence in the university administration, and prominent academic organizations, including the AAUP, the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the Society of American Law Teachers, have publicly condemned the university’s actions. More than 5,000 academics from around the country have pledged to boycott the institution, resulting in the cancellation of dozens of scheduled talks and conferences at the school.
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The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.