There are prizes that academic institutions hope to receive, and there are awards of ignominy. The Jefferson Muzzles Award, given out every year in mid-April is of the latter variety. Awarded by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the Muzzles Award is a “good-natured rebuke to all government officials, lest they forget or disregard Mr. Jefferson’s admonition that freedom of speech ‘cannot be limited without being lost.’”
One of this year’s award recipients is the University of Illinois, earning this anti-honor for squelching free speech for its retaliation against Professor Steven Salaita, an accomplished scholar and teacher. Salaita was hired to a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois, following a rigorous national search and pursuant to clearly communicated letters of offer and acceptance. Over the next eleven months, Salaita and University officials prepared for his arrival: Salaita resigned his tenured position at another university, his wife left her job, and the entire family undertook significant effort and expenses to prepare for the family’s move; the University scheduled Salaita to teach two courses, assigned him an office and set up his email account. Then, two weeks before the start of the semester, the University, under pressure from wealthy donors, summarily dismissed Salaita—without notice or an opportunity to be heard—because of disagreement with comments Salaita made on his personal Twitter account expressing unpopular views critical of Israeli government policy in Gaza. The University’s leadership found Salaita’s views unpalatable, as did their donor constituents, so they simply dismissed him. As the Jefferson Muzzles Award signifies, the University’s action was an impermissible response to unpopular speech.
Given the obvious constitutional and contractual problems with the University’s actions, Salaita’s un-hiring has sparked a national debate about censorship and the right to free speech, and Salaita’s only recourse has been to defend himself in the press, while filing a lawsuit against the University. Outrage at the University’s “muzzle” and support for Professor Salaita has been strong, as exemplified by Columbia University Humanities Professor Bruce Robbins’ public letter to the University entitled, “Why This Jewish-American Can’t Visit Urbana-Champaign”: “I will not rehearse for you the reasons why this firing is an outrage to anyone who cares about academic freedom or simple human decency. . . . Professor Salaita spoke up privately, in his capacity as a citizen. . . . In punishing him for speaking up by taking away his job, Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy, among others.”
In order to fully understand the University’s un-hiring and the role that its high-powered donors played in that decision, Professor Salaita issued numerous requests for information via the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Unwilling to clear the air, the University steadfastly refused to comply. Salaita’s counsel, Loevy & Loevy attorney Anand Swaminathan, comments “The University’s administration admits that it dismissed Professor Salaita because it did not like his personal twitter messages on an issue of great public import. Its actions are a clear violation of the First Amendment, and have been criticized and condemned by sixteen departments of the University, the academic senate, a number of other University committees and scholars, and thousands of other professors around the country. Yet, the administration refuses to right its wrong. The University’s administration has certainly earned this award.”