A Champaign County judge today rejected the University of Illinois' attempt to dismiss a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by controversial professor Steven Salaita, who is suing the university to get access to documents about his case.
However, Judge Chase Leonhard agreed to strike portions of the complaint dealing with the circumstances and fallout from the UI's decision to withdraw a job offer to Salaita.
"This is not a political arena" but a Freedom of Information Act case, Leonhard said in issuing his order.
Salaita's lawyers filed suit against the university in November after being denied a request for public documents related to his case. He had been hired for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program starting last fall, but Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the offer after Salaita posted a series of inflammatory tweets about Israel last summer during its bombing of Gaza. UI trustees upheld Wise's decision in September and reiterated their stance in a formal statement last month.
Salaita had filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of communications from high-ranking university officials and influential alumni regarding his case. A search turned up thousands of emails, but the university has refused to turn them over to Salaita, saying it was "unduly burdensome" to produce them.
The FOIA lawsuit seeks to force the university to turn over the documents.
Salaita also filed a separate lawsuit in federal court last month to force the campus to hire him and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation. The UI has promised to fight what it called his "meritless claims."
In the motion considered today, the UI argued that Salaita did not have standing to sue the university for the documents because the initial FOIA request was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In response, Salaita's lead attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago, argued that the initial letter to the university indicated that the Center for Constitutional Rights was representing Salaita, calling the university's argument a delay tactic.
Rather than address the merits of the suit and proceed in an expedited manner, the UI filed a "spurious motion" to dismiss that ignores Illinois appellate law in similar cases, Swaminathan argued.
To avoid unnecessary delays, Salaita's attorneys offered to substitute the center as the plaintiff, he said.
Leonhard ruled Friday that he would allow Salaita to amend the complaint in response to the UI's objections over who's the proper plaintiff.
The UI had opposed the amendment, "laying bare the delay tactics behind these motions," Swaminathan's motion said, arguing that the tactics have prompted "needless" judicial proceedings at taxpayers' expense.
"The first sentence of the September 17 request states, 'The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is representing Steven Salaita, requests the following documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act,'" he wrote, and also copies Salaita on the request.
Subsequent communications made it clear he was the requester throughout the process, he said.
In his initial request, filed Sept. 17, Salaita asked for a variety of information, such as details on hiring policies and communications among more than a dozen officials. It was denied and called unduly burdensome. Salaita narrowed the request, but it still yielded thousands of e-mails.
Salaita asked the court to order the university to hand over the documents, pay civil penalties and cover his attorney fees and costs.
Swaminathan has said the UI can avoid the lawsuit by providing the documents as requested.
Since the board rejected Salaita on Sept. 11, he has been touring the country delivering speeches at a variety of universities, but said last month that he had not found another job.
Leonard granted the UI's motion to strike several paragraphs in the lawsuit that it says are unrelated to the FOIA request. Those sections describe the circumstances of Salaita's case and the public outcry that followed, including a faculty boycott.
"Not only do those allegations have no bearing to a FOIA cause of action, but it is unfair to require the university to admit or deny them in the context of this suit," the UI argued.
Swaminathan said those paragraphs were included to demonstrate the "tremendous public interests in disclosure of the requested records."
"The records requested concern the university's decision to terminate Professor Salaita's appointment to a tenured faculty position at the university based on Professor Salaita's political speech on a matter of tremendous public concern.
"Because of the devastating impact of the university's decision on Professor Salaita personally, and the hugely important principles at stake — free speech, academic freedom, faculty administration shared governance, insulating faculty hiring decisions from the influence of wealthy donors — the circumstances surrounding Professor Salaita's firing have garnered national attention," the brief said.