A federal judge ruled Thursday that Steven Salaita's employment lawsuit against the University of Illinois can proceed, rejecting the UI's motion to dismiss the case.
In a written ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber rejected the UI's major claim — that it never had an employment contract with Salaita.
"If the Court accepted the University's argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist," the judge wrote.
The court also rejected the university's attempt to dismiss Salaita's First Amendment claims, finding that his tweets "implicate every 'central concern' of the First Amendment."
However, the judge also threw out several claims filed by Salaita, including that donors interfered with the hiring by threatening to withhold donations. Leinenweber agreed with the university's argument that donors' conduct was protected by the First Amendment.
"The First Amendment is a two-way street, protecting both Dr. Salaita's speech and that of the donor defendants," the judge wrote.
Leinenweber also tossed out Salaita's claim that Chancellor Phyllis Wise destroyed a two-page memo that could have helped his case. The judge said Salaita did not prove Wise violated any statute and also had access to the chancellor's email that described what was in the memo.
The UI revoked Salaita's tenured faculty position in American Indian Studies last summer after his controversial tweets about Israel.
The UI had tendered a job offer months earlier and Salaita had accepted it in fall 2013. He had resigned from his job at Virginia Tech, with the UI paying his moving expenses, and planned to start teaching in August 2014. But the position had not yet been approved by UI trustees, which usually vote en masse on academic appointments every September.
The judge agreed Salaita used "harsh, often profanity laden rhetoric," but also noted that the university, in its initial public comments on his tweets, recognized the "freedom of speech of all our employees."
"If the University truly felt no obligation to Dr. Salaita, the University could have simply not put the appointment to a vote at all," he said, referring to the trustees' ultimate 8-1 rejection of Salaita's appointment in September 2014.
"Given the serious ramifications of my termination from a tenured professorship to a wide range of people, I am happy to move forward with this suit in the hope that restrictions on academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance will not become further entrenched because of UIUC's behavior," Salaita said in a prepared statement.
The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm Loevy & Loevy on Salaita's behalf, argues that the UI violated Salaita's rights to free speech and due process and breached its employment contract with him. It seeks Salaita's reinstatement and monetary damages, including compensation for the economic hardship and reputational damage.
"The court's ruling clears the way for Professor Salaita to seek redress for the wrongs done by the university, including violating his right to speak freely on issues of public concern without being fired," said Maria LaHood, deputy legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights.
A Champaign County court also ruled in June that the UI had to produce emails and other documents sought by Salaita under the Freedom of Information Act.
"In its effort to have Professor Salaita's lawsuit thrown out before discovery into the reasons for its decision, the university's administration took a number of positions that showed contempt for its constitutional obligations, and raise serious doubts about the university's commitment to academic freedom and its willingness to honor contractual commitments to its scholars," said Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy. "We are extremely pleased that the court has rejected the University's dubious arguments."
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the campus was gratified that the judge dismissed four of the nine counts filed by Salaita.
"While Dr. Salaita has the right to continue his lawsuit, a much narrower version of the case will proceed," she said in an email statement. "We are preparing to vigorously defend the university's decision not to hire him."