CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A professor who lost a University of Illinois job offer over his profane, anti-Israel Twitter messages sued several university officials on Thursday, saying they denied his right to free speech and that the school should rehire him.
Steven Salaita argues in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, that he also is being deprived of the academic freedom that would be guaranteed under the tenured position he accepted from the school.
The 39-year-old left a job at Virginia Tech University for the position even though the University of Illinois’s Board of Trustees had not yet approved his appointment. Such approval is required but often doesn’t happen until after a professor starts teaching.
The lawsuit, which also seeks unspecified monetary damages, was filed against several university trustees who voted against rehiring Salaita after Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, rescinded the job offer.
Wise and University President Robert Easter also are named as defendants, as are “John Doe” donors. Salaita’s attorneys say donors they have yet to identify influenced the decision, which school officials have denied.
“No one — not even the university administration — disputes the fact that it acted based on Professor Salaita’s speech,” the lawsuit states, accusing the defendants of conspiring to keep him from working at the university and, in the process, damaging his reputation as an academic.
“The firing has left my academic career, the primary mechanism for supporting my family, in shambles,” Salaita said Thursday. “Without an income source, my wife, young son and I have been forced to move in with my parents and now struggle to make ends meet.”
The university released a statement saying it would fight the lawsuit, adding that the school “has attempted to negotiate a settlement for his reasonable losses and expenses, but he has refused those offers.”
Salaita was an English professor at Virginia Tech when in October 2013 he accepted an offer to become a professor in the University of Illinois’ American Indian Studies program. He was scheduled to start in the fall of 2014 with a salary of $85,000.
But during battles between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza in July, Salaita often turned to Twitter to criticize Israel and others. One message, on July 20, read: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
According to emails obtained from the university, dozens of donors, graduates and others wrote to Wise, the chancellor, in July to say Salaita shouldn’t be hired.
On Aug. 1, she wrote to Salaita to tell him without explanation that the job offer had been rescinded. Salaita and his attorneys believe Wise gave in to pressure from donors; Wise denies the allegation.
Salaita has separately sued the university over its refusal to hand over some university officials’ emails.
Salaita has said he and his young family are living with his parents in Virginia. He has since traveled the country delivering speeches on his situation.