Top Legal Scholars Decry “Chilling” Effect of Salaita Dehiring

Scholars from law schools at Columbia, Cornell, Berkeley, Georgetown, and other universities have come out with a very strong letter condemning the decision of the University of Illinois to dehire Steven Salaita. Here are some excerpts:

As scholars of free speech and constitutional law, we write to express alarm at your decision to revoke a tenured offer of appointment to Professor Steven Salaita to join the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on account of his statements on social media criticizing Israel’s conduct of military operations in Gaza.

In our view, the decision to withdraw an appointment to a prospective faculty member because of his statements on a matter of public concern raises serious concerns under established principles of academic freedom. Those principles are enshrined in Illinois law, in the U.S. Constitution, and in the written principles of the American Association of University Professors.

American universities have been the home of vigorous political debate and disagreement for many decades….In connection with these and other issues faculty, students and staff have engaged a range of tactics and strategies to express their political views including demonstrations and sit-ins, taking over university buildings, calling for divestment or boycott, and condemning public policies and laws. More recently, with the rise of social media, faculty and student expression on matters of public concern have taken place on Twitter, Facebook, and other internet fora.

What is more, the constitutional problem underlying the withdrawal of an offer of employment to Professor Salaita on account of his opinions on the Middle East affects not only him individually, but all current and prospective faculty at the University of Illinois insofar as it will have the predictable and inevitable effect of chilling speech–both inside and outside the classroom–by other academics. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s website currently lists 27 open academic searches. It is reasonable to conclude that any person considering applying for any of those positions would be very concerned about any opinions they might have expressed, either in their scholarship or in their private capacity, on the conflict in the Middle East or on other controversial questions. The University has sent a clear message to all prospective job candidates that their suitability for employment at the University of Illinois may turn on the views they have voiced on this or some other complex matter of public concern.

Tragically, the University of Illinois’s decision to rescind a job offer to Professor Salaita on account of his views on the Middle East evokes similarly unconstitutional litmus tests applied to educators in Illinois in the past when public officials sought to impose upon the academy a particular orthodoxy on a matter of public concern. As a website set up by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Student Life and Cultural Archival Program Illinois well documents, Illinois has unfortunately distinguished itself in its efforts over the years to purge from its teaching ranks faculty who held views that were deemed un-American or otherwise controversial.

The withdrawal of the offer of employment to Professor Salaita threatens to punish a colleague who has participated in a rich, and at times heated, climate of debate on the issue of justice in the Middle East, and it will surely chill debate by other scholars in the future.

 We recognize that universities may consider a wider range of factors in deciding whether to hire a potential faculty member than in deciding whether to dismiss a current faculty member. However, that principle is irrelevant here. Even as a technical legal matter, Professor Salaita was already a de facto member of the University of Illinois faculty under the principle of promissory estoppel as articulated by the Illinois Supreme Court. Moreover, the timing and manner of Professor Salaita’s dismissal strongly indicate the sort of viewpoint discrimination that would violate the First Amendment even at the hiring stage.

We urge you in the strongest of terms to submit to the University’s board of trustees the appointment of Professor Salaita to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies program.

If you are a professor or scholar of law, please email Professor Katherine Franke at the Columbia Law School. Her email address is



  1. sonshinegreene August 15, 2014 at 1:30 pm | #

    That’s some bullshit, it’s getting almost as bad as the “Red scare” of the 50’s.

  2. Amyclae August 15, 2014 at 2:26 pm | #

    Usually academic freedom is a euphemism for ‘an opinion I agree with.’ Here is no different.

  3. Jasmine mario August 18, 2014 at 8:09 pm | #

    Promissory estoppel is a concept much favored by law professors but it has no bite in the court of law.

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