For university faculty, when, if ever, is speech that includes what may be perceived as vulgar, discourteous or uncivil language protected from putative action by university administrators and/or boards of trustees? Is speech which uses such language, even swear words, acceptable as a way of expressing extreme feelings of anger, outrage or injustice about the behavior of others; of getting the attention of an otherwise complacent audience, especially when more refined or orthodox language has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears; or, more specifically, of arousing a strong response from a particular audience that one is attempting to reach (e.g., fellow citizens who need to “wake up and take action”)?
Should different standards be applied in evaluating faculty speech which occurs in academic settings (classrooms, professional meetings, publications) from speech expressing one’s personal thoughts or feelings through less formal social media channels? Given the fact that a faculty member’s tweets may be read by others, including one’s students and colleagues at the university and even alums and financial donors, must one always be careful not to offend others through what may be perceived as inappropriate language, or would such sanitized speech often seriously limit its forcefulness and impact?
Application to the Treatment of Salaita
How should all of these questions be answered as they apply to Steven Salaita, the faculty member offered a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, whose formal appointment was blocked by the chancellor and board of trustees after major donors and others raised concerns about his angry tweets against the Israeli government and its prime minister in response to their treatment of Palestinians in Gaza in June-July 2014? Should his Twitter speech have been protected from putative action? Was his denial of employment an infraction of both his freedom of speech and his academic freedom as well as of established university personnel policies and procedures?
Because Salaita’s credentials and past academic performance were reviewed by departmental faculty, the relevant dean, and the provost at UIUC before being forwarded with a recommendation for hire to the chancellor and board of trustees, his substantive views on colonialism and the occupation of Palestine by Israel were known by those involved in the hire—or at least were available for their scrutiny. Also known was Salaita’s background as a Palestinian American with family and friends in Palestine.
Among the claims made by Salaita’s critics is that some of his Twitter posts were “anti-Semitic.” A careful reading of the posts, however, will show that they did not criticize Jews in general or Judaism, but the actions of the Israeli government and its prime minister. Significant numbers of Jews living both inside and outside of Israel oppose the occupation of Palestine and the harsh actions of the Israeli government toward Palestinian civilians over many decades.
Were Salaita to be employed at UIUC, would his angry tweets intimidate Jewish and other students on the UIUC campus and undermine his ability to communicate openly, rationally and respectfully with them in the future? Judging from his positive teaching evaluations elsewhere and from comments by students which highlighted his openness, approachability and willingness to listen to and respect diverse points of view, this does not appear to be the case. Should not UIUC students be exposed to viewpoints other than their own? Should not universities, good ones at least, be places where a broad range of perspectives on important public issues of the day are expressed and debated face-to-face and through multiple media outlets? Steven Salaita thinks so. In addressing students and others at the University YMCA on the UIUC campus in September, Salaita said, “Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking. They are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic or social orthodoxy.”
From my perspective, Salaita’s angry Twitter speech can be understood and accepted as a response to the grossly inhumane actions of Israel in Gaza that he was protesting, actions criticized by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and governments around the world. In fact, at one level, it reveals a truly human side to Steven Salaita: Who would not have responded in a similar manner if they had comparable historical knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian relations as well as familial and other personal connections to Palestine?
I prefer to judge Salaita’s probable future performance as a tenured teacher and scholar at UIUC on the basis of his demonstrated record which is outstanding. The chancellor and board of trustees have acted inappropriately and violated both Salaita’s rights and the University’s own personnel policies and procedures. As a result, they should either reverse their decision or be prepared to have the American courts do so in the future at great cost to the University’s reputation as a top tier academic institution.
Gary Storm is Professor Emeritus and former Dean of Human Services and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Springfield.