CHICAGO (CN) - A Palestinian-American professor filed a First Amendment suit against the University of Illinois for withdrawing a job offer because of anti-Israel tweets during the 2014 bombing of Gaza.
Steven Salaita, who studies colonialism and the Middle East, filed the federal complaint on Jan. 29 against the university's Board of Trustees, eight individual board members, University President Robert Easter, Vice President Christophe Pierre, and Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
Salaita, 39, says he accepted a tenure-track faculty position in American Indian studies in 2013 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He allegedly resigned from his tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech University to begin the new job in the fall.
Over the summer, however, Salaita allegedly posted numerous comments to his personal Twitter account that were deeply critical of Israel's military action in Gaza.
Salaita notes that on July 20 he tweeted: "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine."
The same day, according to the complaint, he tweeted, "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza."
Salaita says that as late as July 25, 2014, the university reassured him that it would cover the full cost of his move to Illinois.
But on Aug. 2, Chancellor Wise sent him an email withdrawing the job offer, and the board of trustees affirmed the decision 8-1 in September, according to the complaint.
Salaita says that certain wealthy donors "cherry-picked" his tweets to present a picture of him as an anti-Semite and advocate of violence.
These donors allegedly wrote the university and "openly stated that they would withdraw financial support from the University if it did not terminate Professor Salaita's appointment."
"One writer who described himself as a 'multiple 6 figure donor' stated that his and his wife's 'support is ending as we vehemently disagree' with Professor Salaita," the complaint states.
Steven Miller, the owner of a Chicago-based venture capital firm and boardmember of the Hillel Foundation, holds an endowed chair in Business in his name at the University, and allegedly told the chancellor he would "reduce or withhold his monetary contributions to the University if Professor Salaita was allowed to teach there."
"The chancellor's letter of termination to Professor Salaita was dated the same day," according to the complaint.
Salaita says thousands of scholars and academic journals have voiced their support for him, and denounced the University of Illinois' decision as a violation of academic freedom and the First Amendment.
Chancellor Wise admitted that the university's action was based on Salaita's political opinions, but defended the decision, saying that Salaita's tweets lacked "civility" and raised questions about his teaching ability, according to the complaint.
"Not only did the board and the chancellor admit that the administration acted based on Professor Salaita's political speech, their statements justifying their decision are plain pretext," the complaint states. "On information and belief, the university has never fired, let alone punished, a faculty member for 'uncivil' speech outside of the classroom and campus, and not addressed to its students or faculty."
"Neither the chancellor nor the board made any reference to the pressure from donors to terminate Professor Salaita's appointment that had been taking place," the complaint says.
Salaita claims a review of his Twitter account as a whole shows he is an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism, and his teaching evaluations praise his openness to different viewpoints.
The professor says he remains jobless, and is living with his parents, unable to support his family, with his "academic career in tatters."
He seeks damages for violation of his First Amendment and due process rights, conspiracy, breach of contract, emotional distress, and spoliation of evidence.
He is represented by Jon Loevy with Chicago civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy, and Maria LaHood with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In a statement provided to the Chicago Tribune, the university said Salaita's claims are "meritless." It also listed some of his tweets and said, "these statements and many more like them demonstrate that Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East."