KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Academic freedom, the idea that a professor can say provocative and controversial things in the pursuit of ideas and debate - that idea is entering a whole new era in the age of social media and Twitter. In the summer of 2014, Steven Salaita learned all about this. He was about to start a job as a tenured professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois.
STEVEN SALAITA: We had already put our down payment on a condominium south of Champaign, Ill. My books had been ordered. My syllabi had been submitted. I was identifying myself publicly as a professor at the University of Illinois.
MCEVERS: But then the conflict in Gaza broke out and Salaita, who was already very active on Twitter, started posting tweets that were critical of Israel and its supporters. Weeks later, the University of Illinois rescinded Salaita's job offer. The chancellor said they could not tolerate, quote, "personal and disrespectful words or actions." Academics from around the country protested. Steven Salaita later sued, and the university chancellor resigned this past August. Steven Salaita has now written a book about his side of the story. It's called "Uncivil Rights: Palestine And The Limits Of Academic Freedom." When I talked to him last week, we started with the tweets that ultimately lost him his job.
MCEVERS: There's one tweet in particular that I want to read.
MCEVERS: (Reading) Zionists: transforming anti-Semitism from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza.
A lot of people found this tweet offensive.
MCEVERS: Can you explain it?
SALAITA: I can. You know, my intention with the tweet - I should point out first that anti-Semitism was in quotation marks, so it wasn't a commentary about the inherent honorability of anti-Semitism, which is an attitude and a set of practices that I deplore and have always and consistently spoken against. It's a critique of a particular discourse that says criticism of Israel or criticism of Israeli state policy is somehow anti-Semitic. And I'm responding largely to being called, over and over again, anti-Semitic, you know, for raising criticisms of Israel's behavior. And it's my way of saying that this is what I'm doing. If you want to call it anti-Semitic, these are the implications of that accusation, and you ought to think about it.
MCEVERS: But at that moment when you wrote tweet, did you think to yourself, I wonder what people will think of this; I wonder what my future employer will think of this?
SALAITA: No, I didn't think about the employer. But, yeah, I did think about how people might interpret it. I actually word my tweets very carefully. I'm deliberate. I don't send things out in a really hasty way. So I knew that I was pushing a sort of boundary, but I would never tweet anything that I could not render morally defensible if called on.
MCEVERS: A lot of people did find them offensive. I mean, do you think those people could have been right?
SALAITA: In the context of whether or not I should have lost my job or whether or not the First Amendment should be aggregated, I don't think it particularly matters that of course people are offended, and of course their sense of offense might be legitimate. But it doesn't change the fact that that is no basis on which somebody can be arbitrarily removed from a tenured position and have his free speech rights taken away.
MCEVERS: One of the reasons the university gave at the time of your termination was that you were basically creating a hostile environment for students when you tweeted things like, if you're defending Israel right now, you're an awful human being. That that was a - that was not creating a place for discussion but yet a place where people with other viewpoints wouldn't feel like they belonged. How do you respond to that?
SALAITA: I have a long teaching record, and that teaching record, which is documented, says that I've always entertained different points of view. You know, I've never forced students into thinking a certain thing, and I certainly would never dream of doing that.
And the second thing is, after the decision was made, you know, to terminate the contract, you know, there were hundreds of students who were very vocally protesting the decision. And those students - right? - the Palestinian students, they didn't seem to factor in the administration's concern about the safety and the comfort of students because they wanted me there. And they were very vocal about their desire to have me there, so...
MCEVERS: What do you think about your tweets now? Do you - you know, I mean, this is something that lost you your job, your income. I mean, you have a family to support. Do you think - do you have regret about these tweets?
SALAITA: It's a tough question to answer, and I don't want to do dissimulate (laughter). So, I mean, I'll put it this way. If I would have known that those tweets would end up getting me fired, of course I would not have sent them. But at the same time, I don't regret what I said in the sense that there is no political viewpoint that I would walk back, even now. I do regret that they were interpreted as hostile and offensive. And I very much wish that I would have had the opportunity to discuss that with the chancellor at the time and some other folks. I think that that would have made a big difference.
MCEVERS: You are actually returning to the University of Illinois campus to give a talk. What are you going to say when you talk to students? I mean, what's the lesson you want people to take away from all this?
SALAITA: There are so many useful lessons for students. Some of them include being very aware of what you say and how it affects people, the pratfalls and the rewards of engaging in public political discourse, especially around controversial ideas. And even if they deplore my politics, as I'm sure many of them do, the purpose of free speech and the purpose of academic freedom is to make sure that the power to speak and to converse and debate remains central to the mission and the function of a university campus. And we don't want to hand over that power to administrators - upper administrators - or to donors who are going to arbitrarily shut it down whenever it displeases them.
MCEVERS: All right, that is Steven Salaita. He's currently a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. Thank you so much for joining us.
SALAITA: Thank you for having me.
MCEVERS: Steven Salaita's lawsuit against the University of Illinois is currently working its way through federal court. The university did not respond to our request for comment.
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