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The Settlement in Steven Salaita's Lawsuit - Victory or Defeat for Free Speech?

(November 13, 2015) - The University of Illinois announced this week that it would pay $875,000 to settle Professor Steven Salaita's lawsuit against it for breach of contract and violation of his constitutional rights to due process and freedom of speech. The university had refused to honor its appointment of Salaita in the fall of 2014 because of his angry tweets protesting the Israeli bombing of Gaza that summer. The firing triggered widespread protests in academia, a censure by the American Association of University Professors, and eventually, the resignation of the Chancellor who made the decision, after a federal court denied the university's motion to dismiss Salaita's lawsuit. (See Untangling the Steven Salaita Case and Federal Court Denies U. of Illinois Motion to Dismiss Salaita's Lawsuit, for background.)

Salaita and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which sponsored his case, labeled the settlement "a victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment." (See Settlement Reached in Case of Professor Fired for “Uncivil” Tweets.) But a nationwide group of professors expressed concern that the settlement does not include reinstatement, and thus allows the university to perpetuate its discrimination against controversial expression simply by paying money to those it has fired. They also note that the settlement does nothing to repair the damage done to the university's American Indian Studies Program, which had hired Salaita and was decimated by his firing. (See Statement of Academics on the Settlement of Professor Steven Salaita’s Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

It was not likely, however, that even if Salaita had prevailed at trial, a court would have ordered his reinstatement. And a victory at trial was far from certain, given courts' traditional deference to university decision-making on academic matters. Salaita and his attorneys may also have considered the danger of an appeal by the university; such an appeal had the potential to reverse the very strong precedent of the trial court's decision denying the university's motion to dismiss. As it stands, that trial court decision will be a warning to other public universities that retaliating against professors for controversial political opinions violates the First Amendment.



The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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