Illinois – a university with principles

All of us have the right to free speech, but that does not give us the right to stand up in a crowded theater and yell “fire.”

Smoke rises following Israeli air strike in Gaza August 19 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rises following Israeli air strike in Gaza August 19
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana I was very pleased to see that the institution chose to rescind the appointment of Steven Salaita as associate professor of Indian-American history.
The university took this action in response to tweets that Salaita posted during the recently concluded war in Gaza, such as: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just f–king own it already,” stated one tweet. Another suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might appear on TV wearing a necklace made of the teeth of Palestinian children. In a third he wrote: “Israel is rounding up people and murdering them at point-blank range. The word ‘genocide’ is more germane the more news we hear.”
Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the university, acted as she did not because of his views on Israel or the conflict in the Middle East, she claimed.
“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” she wrote, “are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
Of course the defenders of academic freedom immediately rushed to the defense of Salaita and demanded his reinstatement on the premise that these were his personal thoughts, voiced during an emotional time on his own Twitter account and not in the classroom. But the logic is convoluted and does not stand up to the test of common sense.
All of us have the right to free speech, but that does not give us the right to stand up in a crowded theater and yell “fire,” thereby causing a rampage for the exits which could result in injury and death.
A person would be arrested and severely punished for doing that in America.
In addition, Jewish students on campus who might ultimately enroll in Salaita’s classes might feel quite uncomfortable being taught by someone who espoused such thoughts in the public sphere. Noah Feingold, a junior at the university majoring in environmental sustainability, said, “It’s about feeling safe on campus. This is a professor who tweeted that if you support Israel, you’re an awful person.”
Salaita, of course, defends the tweets and claims that he posted them “at moments of dismay,” and argues that “in that sense tweets serve as a useful record of a particular moment in time.” He does not seem to realize that people at his level of intelligence are expected to have a bit more control over their emotions and to understand the effects of their actions.
Pressure to release him was also brought to bear by wealthy donors to the university, regarding which Salaita commented that the involvement of wealthy donors in the debate “risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom.” How’s that for turning logic on its head? No, what the university did was exactly what it should have done and what very few institutions of higher learning have the guts to do. It recognized the potential damage that could be caused by someone charged with the instruction of students who is unable or unwilling (or both) to understand that the brain should be put in gear before the mouth is given the gas.
The first provision of the Academic Bill of Rights that governs how American universities functions states that no professor should be hired or fired for his or her political views. But lack of good judgment is not covered by this provision and that’s the error that Salaita made and for which he has been duly chastised.
The picture of the statue of alma mater Illinois which hangs above my office desk glows just a bit brighter now, and well it should.
The author is a 30-year resident of Jerusalem, president of Atid EDI Ltd., an economic development consulting firm, and past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel.