The Salaita Case—Academic Blacklisting?

You should formulate your response to the case of Steven Salaita cautiously. Salaita, a professor at the University of Illinois, was unhired following public outcry over his declamations against Israel, Jews, and defenders of Israel on Twitter. If you don’t defend him, you can’t defend right-wingers who express themselves in similarly strong language.

“No individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reminded us in the case of Professor Mike Adams. Public colleges and universities may not fire, refuse to rehire, or refuse to promote professors who have expressed controversial opinions, even if the opinions are expressed in strong language.

If you defend the University of Illinois’ action, what defense can you possibly offer Professor Maurice Eisenstein, who took sides against radical Islam on Facebook? After Boko Haram killed scores of Christians, he wrote, to his professional peril:

Where are the “moderate” Muslims[’] reaction to this? Oh, I forgot they are still looking at the earth as flat according to the idiot Mohammad, may his name be cursed, so this could not have happened.

And how could you defend Bishop James Tengatenga of Malawi, who was personally unhired by Dartmouth College’s president after a public outcry due to his statements about homosexuality while in Africa? As the outcry mounted, Dartmouth’s president personally interrogated Tengatenga about his personal and religious beliefs. Although the president was satisfied that Tengatenga believed in Dartmouth’s official orthodoxy, the school unhired Tengatenga because the mob had complained too much.

But Salaita’s commentary was too extreme, you say? You know the line when you see it, and Salaita crossed it? That’s exactly what censors think they know, and it is just what they’ve thought when going after Tengatenga and a long list of right-of-center professors and, not so long ago, a long list of left-of-center professors.

As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. well expressed in his dissent in the Abrams free speech case in 1919:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. … But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. … I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

It’s in times of war that people pass laws like the Espionage Act preventing full and vigorous debate. But that is exactly the time that such debate should be most robust.

If you believe abortionists kill babies, as Mike Adams does, you might use strong language. You’d do the same if you thought that Boko Haram kills the innocent or that the NRA makes it easier for people to kill the innocent, or if, like Professor Salaita, you’ve taken sides against Israel.

These cases are all different, and they are not morally equivalent except in this respect: “No individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.” And even when the standard for punishment is something less than imminent danger, the Constitution and common sense offer a significant breathing room to permit the widest possible debate on matters of public concern.

Like it or not, Steven Salaita deserves that space.


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