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.

19 thoughts on “The Salaita Case—Academic Blacklisting?”

  1. I don’t divide the intellectual world into “right-wingers” and “left-wingers” as Kissel seems to do, but I would agree with the legal principle expressed by the court in the Adams case. Based on this legal principle, it would indeed be unacceptable to fire, refuse to rehire, or refuse to promote Salaita because he has made statements that many consider extreme and outrageous. However, if I understand the hiring process at Illinois correctly, every job offer explicitly states that it is contingent on approval by the Board of Trustees. I would not agree with the decision of the Board not to approve after an offer has already been made, but, as far as I can see, the Board did clearly act within its legitimate authority. The university clearly did not fire, refuse to rehire, or refuse to promote Salaita because he had not yet been hired. If this goes to court and the court decides the Board did not have this authority, then the university should respect that decision.

    1. The correspondence between Salaita and UIUC makes clear that the Board did not act; rather, UIUC’s chancellor and vice president for academic affairs wrote to advise Salaita that his appointment would not be recommended the Board and was therefore unlikely to occur, so they would not be able to offer him an appointment.

      I agree that the Board had some discretion–leaving aside whether this had been represented to Salaita during the hiring process such a way as to force UIUC to hire him or pay damages–but it never got to execute that discretion; rather, other official intervened and short-circuited the process.

  2. “Right-winger” was added by the editor. The board had no chance to act because the administrator apparently refused to follow the official process of advancing the recommendation to the board. It is unclear whether the administrator had that discretion but, if having it, the administrator apparently abused it. Aborting the final steps in the hiring process because of protected speech seems of a piece with other speech-restrictive actions such as refusal to rehire over protected speech. Also it is a double standard if for everyone else the board step is a technicality (he is likely far from the only one who signed a contract and showed up on campus before the board rubberstamping) but for him it is significantly different because of his protected speech.

  3. I suspect that the Illinois hiring department did a sloppy job. If he is what he seems to be, I suspect that this would be apparent at his last job, things like his syllabi, assignments and professional activities. If so, he’d be guilty of being unprofessional and that could be the legitimate basis of not hiring him. I suspect that this is the case given that so few radicals, regardless of stripe, can keep separate their personal political opinions and their scholarship and teaching.

    Moreover, this easy review would hardly surprise me given the pressure to make the numbers when hiring certain minorities. I spent 28 years at the U of I and have encountered this lack of scrutiny first hand.

  4. The hiring issue is, at best, a legal technicality. Adam Kissel’s essay is about the moral questions here, not just the legal issue of contracts. Clearly, even if the Board technically makes the final hire, this is someone who was hired in every common sense of the word and expected to be teaching this month, and lost his job because of politics. There is actually no great legal distinction on constitutional issues between firing someone for political reasons and refusing to hire them for the same reasons, even if the contractual issues may be different.

  5. Steven Salaita is a specialist in niche literature with a modest publication record. He has no background whatsoever in anthropology or in Amerindian folklore. His hiring by the “American Indian Studies” program makes no sense and an indication that the faculty in that program lack academic seriousness. Responsible superordinate administrators and trustees had every responsibility to scotch the appointment. That he’s a rude cretin on Twitter merely means you’d also dodge the bullet of having an obnoxious embarrassment in your department.

  6. Any “scholar” who routinely confronts opinions other than his own with cries of “you’re a motherfucker” is hard to rally behind. I also cannot help but believe there is a difference between “passionate” and “unhinged.” I’ll agree that any bar should be set high before negative consequences should be allowed to follow, but I will have to disagree with the idea that only complete relativism regarding the values of civility and professionalism is permissible.

  7. I don’t think that this case raises constitutional issues or even academic freedom issues. It should be treated as a contract dispute. Was there in fact a contract between Salaita and the university? If so, did the university breach that contract after discovering that Salaita was obviously prone to ugly ranting and “unhiring” him. And if it did breach the contract, what should the remedy be? Specific performance would not seem to be in the cards because courts almost never order it when a personal relationship is involved. Money damages? Quite possibly. Let Salaita have his day in court. But let’s not think that some great principle is involved in a rant that displays the exact opposite of scholarly demeanor.

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