Embattled professor Steven Salaita has filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois to force the campus to hire him and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court of the Northern District of Illinois.
After university trustees voted 8-1 to reject his appointment in September, Salaita and his lawyers said they intended to sue the university to compel trustees to "complete the employment process."
Salaita "remains without a job, without health insurance, in his parents' home, with his academic career in tatters. ... (T)he faculty of the (UI) American Indian Studies Program still support Professor Salaita and want him to join their ranks," the complaint states.
I have filed a lawsuit in federal court against #UIUC for 1st and 14th amendment violations, and against donors for tortious interference.
The university issued a statement saying it would "vigorously defend against meritless claims."
The lawsuit alleges the university violated Salaita's rights to free speech and due process and breached their contract with him. Listed as defendants are the UI Board of Trustees, President Robert Easter, Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and "unknown donors."
After its Jan. 15 board meeting in Chicago, trustees released a statement saying their decision was final and they would not reconsider Salaita's appointment. A campus committee that investigates alleged violations of academic freedom or faculty governance found fault with the process surrounding his case and concluded that Salaita's tweets critical of Israel did not render him "unfit for office." However, it also suggested any questions about Salaita's "professional fitness" be addressed by a newly-created panel of academic experts. His employment should be reconsidered, they said.
At today's press conference Salaita said he decided to file the lawsuit after it became clear to him the university would not follow the committee's recommendations.
A former English professor at Virginia Tech, Salaita was offered a job in 2013 in American Indian Studies and was planning to join the Urbana faculty this fall. Over the summer, he blasted Israel and its supporters on Twitter, posting tweets such as, "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just (expletive) own it already," and "If you're defending #Israel right now, you're an awful human being." He tweeted, "Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a monstrous colonial regime."
"These statements and many more like them demonstrate that Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East," the university's statement read.
"As a private citizen, Dr. Salaita has the constitutional right to make any public statement he chooses. Dr. Salaita, however, does not have a constitutional right to a faculty position at the University of Illinois," the university stated.
Since the board rejected him on Sept. 11, he has been touring the country delivering speeches at a variety of universities. That has provided him with some income. Salaita said he has sent out a "handful" of applications for faculty jobs elsewhere, but was rejected before advancing to the interview stage.
"I think it's difficult for folks not accustomed to the hiring norms of academe ... what it is to have a tenure position," he said, adding that he likely struck out of the academic job market this year.
"The earliest I can work is August or September 2016," he said.
Without a university affiliation, it's also difficult to publish in scholarly journals and apply for grants to fund research and travel to conferences.
Salaita and his lawyers also filed a lawsuit in November in Champaign County Circuit Court against the university after being denied access to documents via the Freedom of Information Act about the process that led to his not being hired. University lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss that suit; a hearing on that case is scheduled for next month.
The lawsuit filed today asks the court for preliminary and permanent injunctive and "equitable relief," to reinstate Salaita and money for compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys fees and costs. It also is filed against unnamed university donors, who "unlawfully threatened future donations to the university if it did not fire Professor Salaita on account of his political views," according to his lawyers.
Earlier this month university officials said they want to come to a settlement of "mutually-agreeable financial terms" with Salaita, but he and his lawyers have been unresponsive. Wise also has said she regrets not consulting more people before deciding not to recommend Salaita's appointment. She also has insisted donor communications on the issue did not influence her decision.
Salaita is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the Chicago law firm of Loevy & Loevy.
Lawyers did not specify an amount for the damages Salaita is seeking.