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Is US academic freedom a casualty of the Israeli-Palestinian debate?

Did intemperate tweets on Gaza get a professor fired--and should they have?
If academic freedom doesn't protect unpopular views, what good is it?

Steven Salaita is a respected scholar in American Indian studies and Israeli-Arab relations, which got him hired recently to a tenured position at the University of Illinois.

On Twitter, he's been voicing his objections to Israel's conduct in Gaza in the most forceful terms. That has just gotten him fired by the University of Illinois. The result is a firestorm over whether Salaita was fired for his political views, or for his comments in the nonacademic, extramural forum of Twitter, or both.

Either way, the episode looks like a clear-cut infringement of academic freedom. The fact that the underlying political issue is the white-hot issue of Israeli-Palestinians makes it all the more troubling.

At the heart of the case are tweets that Salaita has issued over the last few weeks, during the Gaza battle. There's no question that some are extreme, intemperate and vulgar. His Twitter feed is here.

Among the more notable remarks are these: "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?" And: "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just [expletive] own it already." 

One of Salaita's frequent targets is the tendency of Israel's supporters--"Zionists," as he puts it--to conflate Israel with Jewishness, which he says makes them "partly responsible when people say antisemitic [expletive] in response to Israeli terror." (That's from another tweet.)

Yet this viewpoint could not have been a surprise to the people who hired the controversial Salaita at Illinois--they were a theme of his 2011 book "Israel's Dead Soul." There he writes of his "difficulty understanding what awareness of Jewish culture has to do with puffery of a nation-state and recapitulation of its propaganda." Read an excerpt here.

The university's defense appears to turn on a technicality--that Salaita's appointment had not yet been presented to the board of trustees, and therefore was not final. The university has decided not to present the appointment to the trustees after all; in other words, it's not that Salaita was fired, he merely was not hired. And since a university can't be forced to hire anyone in particular, who can object to that?

"This is not an issue of academic freedom," Cary Nelson, an emeritus professor of English at Illinois and a former national president of the American Assn. of University Professors, has written. "If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be."

As a rationalization, this has received low marks from academic observers. Salaita was offered the job last year, accepted it, received confirmation in writing, and had been slotted in to the university's class schedule for the coming term, which begins in a few weeks. 

To quote John K. Wilson, a member of the state council of the Illinois chapter of the AAUP: "I’ve been turned down for jobs before, and it never included receiving a job offer, accepting that offer, moving halfway across the country, and being scheduled to teach classes." 

It should go without saying that Israeli-Palestinian relations evoke strong views, and the horrific events in Gaza have turned up the heat. The inevitable inconsistencies produced by Israel's stature as the Jewish homeland and its role as a state trying to protect its ethnic character and its very existence have long been the topics of debate among Jews, supporters of Israel, and policymakers worldwide. By its nature the debate elicits strong views strongly, often intemperately, expressed. 

Salaita's resort to Twitter to air his views adds a distracting element to the question of whether he has lost his job because of those views. Universities have been grappling with how to treat extramural statements for years, and the proliferation of social media makes the issue more urgent.

But it doesn't really alter the principle set down by the AAUP in 1958, which is that "a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve." Whether Salaita's position is unpopular, even offensive, doesn't enter into the discussion--unpopular views are exactly what demand protection. 

Did Salaita's words amount to violations of professional ethics suggesting he's unfit to serve? Members of an Illinois AAUP committee on academic freedom don't think so: "There is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach.... Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment."

The key, of course, is Salaita's right to due process. If Illinois really thinks his Twitter feed makes him unfit to teach on its campus, then it should make that case in accordance with his right to due process. Its claim that he wasn't really a faculty member just yet is merely a dodge. 

Salaita's appointment was withdrawn just on Friday, which means this case has a long way to go. 

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