Jonathan Turley Cites Kirstein Role in Salaita Travesty

Jonathan Turley is J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law; Director of the Environmental Law Advocacy Center; Executive Director, Project for Older Prisoners at George Washington University. He is one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers and legal experts. Professor Turley defended Professor Sami Al-Arian with consummate skill for eight years. Dr Al-Arian was persecuted and virtually tortured in terms of gratuitous oppression, job loss and incarceration. Professor Turley has quoted me and reproduced the entire text of the Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure statement in support of Steven Salaita including the names of all the committee members.

This advocate for social justice and for the marginalised has posted an extensive commentary on the Steven Salaita firing fiasco at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On his website, he uses the Latin motto: Res ipsa loquitur (“The thing itself speaks”). Indeed, Professor Turley does speak for the application of the law in a manner that does not ignore justice and the need to restrain the powers of repression and coercion in this country.  I will reproduce some seminal statements of his balanced but clearly strong advocacy for the restoration of Professor Salaita’s position at the University of Illinois. This is the link:

Hundreds of academics have signed a petition demanding that the University reinstate the offer and pledging to boycott the university if the decision stands. They insist that he is being denied academic freedom as well as the freedom of speech outside of his employment. Peter Kirstein, vice president of the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors, called the action “outlandish” and “highly irregular” as well as a violation of “academic freedom, due process.” Likewise, the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Baher Azmy called the action “unprecedented and plainly unlawful in violation of the most elementary principles of academic freedom.” She added that “It is quite transparent that they terminated him because they disliked what he was saying about atrocities in Gaza…”

Clearly, the university has a stronger legal claim based on the lack of final approval of the position. However, it has a less compelling basis under academic freedom principles which are the very touchstone of any legitimate academic institution. There are many professor with outspoken pro-Israeli (and sometimes anti-Palestinian) views who are quite outspoken on those who attack Israel. It is part of the diversity of positions that characterize universities. Students and faculty have sharply different views on the subject and a campus is where such views are expressed openly and freely.

Frankly, I find many of the sentiments expressed by Salaita to be highly disturbing. I do not like to see faculty flippantly referring to killings or disappearances even in the heat of a debate or controversy. As academics we are committed to intellectual exchanges and reason, not joking about journalists being stabbed or settlers disappearing.

However, he has also written more substantively on the Israeli issue. I am very troubled by the action taken in this case and the unclear line being drawn over statements made by academics in such disputes. Indeed, one of my greatest concern is that this decision is not being made by the faculty of his department but by the board, which has little academic standing. I have always been critical of the role of such boards which are often composed of simply big donors, celebrities, or well-connected individuals with precious little understanding of the academic mission or academic freedom.

Contact: kirstein@sxu.edu

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