For the past two months the academic blogosphere has been filled with debate about the case of Professor Steven Salaita, who was poised to accept a tenured position in Native American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. A few days ago, that appointment was blocked by the University’s Chancellor.
The reason for the blockage (or, if one believes that the hire was fully effected, rescinding) of the hire has to do with Salaita’s public comments, made via Twitter. Intriguingly, the debate has had little to do with Salaita’s published scholarship (he wrote a monograph in 2006 comparing the concepts of indigeneity, settler colonialism, and land rights amongst Native Americans and Palestinians) or even his many journalistic opinion pieces, which were published in 2011. Instead, Salaita’s academic future has been hanging on a few dozen 140-character-or-less tweets, many of them made during this summer’s Gaza war. As anyone who has been following the story knows, the tweets are vulgar and nasty. Some of Salaita’s defenders term them provocative, but his critics would call them incendiary. Debate has gone back and forth whether they cross the line from anti-Zionism into antisemitism and whether they advocate violence.
The real questions, though, are: does the principle of academic freedom apply to extramural speech? Does that freedom apply across the board to hostile speech directed against any individual or group? Is extra-mural speech an issue only when it touches upon the scholar’s areas of expertise and so might reflect on her/his competence? Are nasty comments licit regardless of what kind of group is being attacked, or only if the object of abuse is perceived as powerful, oppressive, exploitative, or just plain wrong-headed? That is, are abusive tweets by academics against Israel, the NRA, the NSA, and the Koch Brothers permitted, yet equally harsh comments about Palestinians, gun-control advocates, anarchists, and Pacifica Radio grounds for censure or dismissal?
All this brings up two related questions: Is the academy a continuation of the political battlefield or a shelter from it? Does the university replicate conflict or strive to transcend it?
I have no answer to these questions, and I would not trust anyone in the University to answer them for me. Even constitutional protections of speech have limits, and in universities scholars may not say whatever they want, however and whenever they want to. But the bar for unacceptable speech must be set very high, and it cannot be set at different heights for different kinds of opinions. A few – well, even more than a few – outrageous ideologues on all sides of the spectrum may be a small price to pay for the freedoms that lie at the core of our humanity.
At the link below, two scholars at the University of Illinois discuss these questions in an unusually informed and civil manner: