Academic freedom or Anti-Semitism? The Salaita Case

The short story: On October 9, 2013, Dr. Steven Salaita signed an offer letter with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program.

Starting in June, when the conflict in the West Bank escalated, Salaita began tweeting about the crisis in Palestine. The tweets were highly critical of the attacks by Israel that killed Palestinian civilians, as well as the pro-Israel involvement of the United States. The tweets also used profanity. You can read some of them here.

Salaita’s stance on the conflict, though controversial, was not unknown to UIUC. After all, Salaita is the author of six books, including “Israel’s Dead Soul” and “Anti-Arab Racism in the USA.”

On August 2nd, 2014, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Salaita that a Board approval of his position was impossible, and that his job offer was officially rescinded.

Salaita and his supporters maintain that the principles of academic freedom permit him to share his views without fear of censure or reprisal. The rescinding of the job offer is a violation of First Amendment rights. At first, even UIUC defended Salaita’s tweets on this ground.

Opponents argue that Salaita hadn’t officially been hired yet, so he was not protected by academic freedom. Additionally, the tweets cross the line into anti-Semitism, and thus should be viewed as hate speech.

Several hundred UIUC professors have joined a boycott against the university’s decision to “un-hire” Salaita. Even visiting scholars (including Dr. Kavka, a professor of Jewish philosophy, life and culture) have joined the campaign, and there is a Change.org petition gaining momentum.

What do you think? Should Dr. Salaita be protected for his free speech, and re-offered his position? Or did he cross a line, and therefore the university has the right – nay, responsibility – to reject him?

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