After months of procedural motions, Steven Salaita's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University of Illinois should reach some resolution at a hearing today.
Salaita's lawyers have urged supporters to "pack the house" for the 9:30 a.m. hearing at the Champaign County Courthouse.
Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis has said he will rule on motions for summary judgment filed by both Salaita and the UI in recent weeks. If he does not grant summary judgment — deciding the case without a full trial — he will begin hearing arguments on the university's contention that Salaita's request was "unduly burdensome."
"I'm expecting we're going to get a decision on Friday," said Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago. "You never know for sure."
The lawsuit was filed by Salaita and his lawyers in November after they were denied a request for public documents related to his case.
Salaita was offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program in October 2013, but Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the job on Aug. 1, 2014 — three weeks before he was to start teaching — after Salaita posted a series of angry tweets about Israel during its bombing of Gaza last summer. UI trustees upheld Wise's decision in September and reiterated their stance in a formal statement in January.
Salaita filed 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 refused to turn them over to Salaita, saying it was unduly burdensome to produce them, as FOIA allows. The lawsuit seeks to force the university to turn over the documents, arguing that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the burden on the university.
"They have stalled on this FOIA request entirely," Swaminathan said this week. "They have not agreed to produce a single document, not one page, in response to our FOIA request."
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. Salaita narrowed the request, but it still yielded more than 9,600 emails, which would take several weeks to review, according to documents filed by attorney Charles Schmadeke of Hinshaw and Culbertson in Springfield, who is representing the UI.
Salaita's lawyers argue that the university is trying to "impose secrecy over its controversial decisions with regard to free speech, academic freedom and the influence of wealthy donors — decisions that have garnered both local and international media attention."
They suggested that the UI hire contract attorneys for $50 an hour to help review the documents. The UI's reply was skeptical that they could be trained in the university's systems quickly and said that would pose an "unreasonable risk."
They also included copies of widespread media coverage of the case.
In his reply, Schmadeke argued that the press coverage may indicate "curiosity" or a "public desire to know about this case," but doesn't constitute evidence of the public interest.
Further, he said, "it is readily apparent that what we are dealing with in this case is not the public interest, but with Salaita's personal interest in pursuing his employment claims against the university."
Salaita filed a separate lawsuit in federal court 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; a judge has yet to issue a ruling on that motion.
If the UI's motion for summary judgment in the FOIA case is not granted, Schmadeke said, the judge should defer the case until Salaita's employment lawsuit is resolved.
That case entitles Salaita to obtain documents from the university through the discovery process, which his lawyers are just beginning to receive, Swaminathan said. But the university could claim that they should not be shared publicly, which is why it's important to pursue the FOIA case, he said.
The communication this week to Salaita supporters from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Swaminathan's co-counsel, noted that more than 5,000 academics have boycotted the UI campus, several academic organizations have condemned the UI's actions, and 19,000 people have signed a petition of support for Salaita.