A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the University of Illinois by controversial professor Steven Salaita won't be resolved until at least June.
Champaign County Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis today set a hearing date of June 12 for the lawsuit, which was filed by Salaita and his lawyers in November after they were denied a request for public documents related to his case.
The judge will rule that day on motions for summary judgment to be filed by both parties over the next two months. If he does not grant summary judgment — deciding the case without a full trial — Difanis said he will begin hearing arguments immediately to "get this off the dime."
"That's terrific," Salaita's attorney, Gretchen Helfrich of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago, said after a brief hearing Monday afternoon. "It's been a lot of delays up until now."
Salaita was 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 controversial 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 in January.
Salaita filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of communications from high-ranking university officials and influential alumni regarding his case, in hopes of proving that donors influenced the UI's decision.
A search turned up thousands of emails, but the university 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.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this year, 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 attorneys 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.
Sitting in for Difanis, Champaign County Judge Chase Leonhard in February rejected the university's motion to dismiss and allowed Salaita's lawyers to amend the complaint. But he also agreed to strike portions of the complaint outlining the circumstances and fallout from the UI's decision to withdraw its job offer to Salaita. He said the case involved FOIA, not the merits of Salaita's job claim.
Salaita's layers said those paragraphs were included to demonstrate the "tremendous public interests in disclosure of the requested records" and counter the UI's argument that the FOIA request was burdensome.
In his initial request, filed Sept. 17, Salaita asked for a variety of information, such as details on hiring policies and relevant communications among more than a dozen officials over several months. It was denied and called unduly burdensome. Salaita narrowed the request, but it still yielded thousands of emails.
After several more attempts to refine the request failed, Salaita filed the lawsuit, according to his complaint. Salaita asked the court to order the university to hand over the documents, pay civil penalties and cover his attorney fees and costs.
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 filed a motion to dismiss in late February, and Salaita responded on March 30. A hearing in that case is scheduled in late May.
"Of course we think that there's going to be important information in these documents that we're requesting here that will bear on that suit. So one can only speculate on what the university's motives might be in digging in their heels on releasing these documents," Helfrich said.
But that aside, she said, "the state FOIA Act requires that these things be moved on quickly."
Attorney Charles Schmadeke of Hinshaw and Culbertson law firm in Springfield is representing the UI in the case.