Late Friday afternoon (August 22), the University of Illinois broke its three-week long silence on the controversy regarding the Chancellor's revocation of a tenured offer to Steven Salaita, who had accepted a faculty position in the American Indian Studies Program at the flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign. Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy both issued statements explaining the revocation, but in terms far more alarming than the original decision itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees have now declared that the First Amendment does not apply to any tenured faculty at the University of Illinois. A bit of background to Friday's bombshell statements. Last October, Professor Salaita, then teaching at Virginia Tech, accepted a tenured offer from the Urbana-Champaign campus. He went through the regular appointments process at the University of Illinois, and received approval by the relevant departments and deans after a review of his scholarship and teaching. The offer, which he accepted, was conditional on approval by the Board of Trustees. Such approval clauses are typical in all teaching contracts and had, previously, been pro forma at Illinois, as they are at all serious universities: it is not the job of the Board of Trustees of a research institution to second-guess the judgment of academics and scholars. Well before the Board took the matter up, even University officials were describing Salaita as a faculty member, and he moved to Illinois and was scheduled to teach two classes this fall.
Salaita also has a Twitter account. "Tweets" are limited to 140 characters, so the medium is conducive primarily to spontaneous and superficial commentary. As a Palestinian-American and scholar of colonialism, Salaita tweeted extensively about the Israeli attack on Gaza. Contrary to the initial misrepresentations put into circulation by far right websites, none of the tweets were either anti-semitic or incitements to violence. Some were vulgar, some juvenile, some insulting, some banal. The First Amendment unequivocally protects Salaita's right to express every one of those opinions on a matter of public concern, and to do so, if he wants, with vulgarity and insults. As a matter of American constitutional law, this is not a close case.
Part of the First Amendment's protection of such speech is that government, including a state university, is prohibited from punishing the speaker for his expression or viewpoint. Revoking a job offer because of such speech would, again, be clearly unconstitutional. Salaita's constitutional and contractual claims will no doubt be adjudicated in court, and the University should lose.
That now brings us to Friday's shocking statements. Chancellor Wise declared that "we cannot... tolerate... personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." Yet as a matter of well-settled American constitutional law, the University of Illinois must tolerate "words... that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." The University has no choice, both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of its contractual commitment with its faculty to academic freedom. Scathing critiques of both viewpoints and authors abound in almost all scholarly fields; it would be the end of serious scholarly inquiry and debate were administrators to become the arbiters of "good manners." More simply, it would be illegal for the University to start punishing its faculty for failure to live up to the Chancellor's expectations for "civil" speech and disagreement.
The university, of course, need not and should not tolerate the mistreatment of students in the classroom, but there is no evidence of any such pedagogical misconduct in this case; indeed, the public evidence is that Salaita is a successful and popular teacher. No serious university evaluates pedagogical fitness based on speculative inferences from twitter accounts, yet the Chancellor's statement implies that this is what Illinois has done in this instance. Faculty have pedagogical and professional obligations to their students, but that does not include the obligation to refrain from expressing views, whether about matters of public concern or matters within the purview of a faculty member's scholarship, that some student somewhere might find upsetting, leading that student to conclude that that faculty member might not "value that student as a human being." A student's entitlement is to be treated seriously and professionally in the classroom; students have no entitlement to never find the views of their professors offensive or upsetting.
Chairman Kennedy's statement is even worse than the Chancellor's. While endorsing the Chancellor's abrogation of the constitutional and contractual rights of the faculty, he goes even further, declaring that "there can be no place" for "disrespectful and demeaning speech" "in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university." We may certainly hope for more civility in public life, but "disrespectful and demeaning speech" not only has an extensive presence in our democracy (as everyone knows), it has a constitutionally protected place as well, as the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed. Yet Chairman Kennedy says he believes only in "free speech tempered in respect for human rights." But there is no doctrine of "free speech tempered in respect for human rights" in American constitutional law. It is a national embarrassment that a public official, the Chairman of the University of Illinois's Board of Trustees, apparently does not know even the basic facts about the American constitutional system. At moments like this, one wonders: Where are the lawyers? Chancellor Wise and Chairman Kennedy have made statements that commit the University of Illinois to illegal because unconstitutional courses of action. They should resign, or be removed from office, before doing further damage to one of the nation's great research universities. Their public statements make clear they are unfit to lead academic institutions in which both freedom of speech and freedom of research and inquiry are upheld.