A Six-Figure Settlement on Campus Free Speech

Trustees at the University of Illinois agreed to pay Steven Salaita $600,000 after the professor’s job offer was revoked for anti-Israel statements made on social media.

Seth Perlman / AP

As debates roil over free speech on American college campuses and as mechanisms that critique Israeli policies continue to divide, the universe delivered a perfect enmeshing of both stories in the Land of Lincoln.

On Thursday, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reached a settlement with Steven Salaita, a professor who had a job offer revoked by the school after he tweeted incendiary statements about Israel during the country’s war with Hamas in Gaza last summer. Here was one such tweet:

The university was bombarded by letters from angry students, parents, donors, and alumni, which ultimately led to the scuttling of his appointment by the college’s trustees. At the time, University Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued that Salaita’s beliefs were not the issue, but rather the tenor of his statements:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

(In other tweets, Salaita assailed those who defended Israel as either “hopelessly brainwashed” or “awful human beings.”)

The decision to revoke the job offer from Salaita, who had quit his previous job, sold his house, and moved to Illinois, ignited another round of outrage among free-speech activists and those in academia who saw the encroachment of partisan politics into an academic appointment.

Salaita filed two lawsuits, which are now settled. As The Chicago Tribute reports, Salaita drops his lawsuits and “the university admits no wrongdoing.” Salaita’s job offer is still off the table, but he will receive $600,000, in addition to $275,000 in legal fees. Notably, some of the funds used to pay the settlement will be taxpayer money.

Salaita, who has since found a home at the American University of Beirut, issued a statement on his Facebook page.

We settled the case against UIUC today, and I am deeply grateful for the support and solidarity from so many individuals and communities. Together, we sent a strong message to those who would silence Palestine activists and limit speech on campus. The activists, students, academics, and others who spoke up with petitions, demonstrations, and investigations proved that grassroots organizing can make a difference. This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn’t over. At this point I am ready to move beyond this particular matter and continue doing what I love—teaching, writing, organizing, and contributing in whatever way I can to struggles for justice.