Right to Free Speech, Not a Job

Marshall Borden, Contributing Writer

This past summer, Steven Salaita was offered a position as a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As an extremely qualified professor, he was awarded a job with full tenure before he had even worked a single day there. With only a few weeks to go before the start of the semester, his contract was terminated. With very little information being revealed as to why he was fired, confusion and speculation surrounded the incident.

Soon afterward, the University of Illinois revealed that his contract termination was a result of an array of opinionated tweets that Salaita posted to his personal Twitter account. In what seems to be a completely irrelevant issue, Salaita’s job offer was revoked, largely due to the comments he had about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After delving into the details of the report, there are many reasons to believe that the University of Illinois is not to blame for its decision.

Salaita has not been shy in voicing his extreme opposition of the Israeli’s settlement within the Gaza Strip. Many of Salaita’s tweets were insensitive, and some were even perceived as anti-Semitic. Expressing his opinions through various tweets, he included controversial phrases such as “Nobody admires #Israel,” “If you haven’t recently been called a terror-loving anti-Semite, then I’m sorry to say your critique of #Israel is totally weak,” and “If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.” He also retweeted a post about wishing that all Israelis would go missing, which came just after a group of Israeli teens were kidnapped, proclaimed missing, and eventually murdered.

His opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip is clearly passionate, but his being let go from the university sparked an outrage in many communities and led to a much larger issue about free speech. With a petition currently being signed by thousands of people, Salaita is spearheading an argument defending his freedom of speech and why it was unjust to terminate his contract. He notes that his career should not be linked to his personal life whatsoever and that it is unjust for the school to explicitly do so.

While he has gained relatively significant support for his case, I reserve the opinion that the actions of the University of Illinois were justifiable. Freedom of speech is important to the nature of American society, but teaching in a professional setting is a privilege and a major responsibility. Despite exercising free speech entirely within his constitutional rights, Salaita’s comments through Twitter were ill-advised, insensitive, and ultimately have no place within a university setting.

After these tweets, it would be incredibly difficult for a Jewish student or supporter of the state of Israeli to feel comfortable enrolling in a course with Salaita. What Salaita fails to recognize in his argument is that his opinions are extremely offensive to certain groups, and that there are sacrifices that come with publicly expressing one’s opinions. He has the right to say what he believes, but as a university professor, his words certainly should be held against him if they have the capacity to offend a significant portion of the university’s population. While it is impossible to handle this situation perfectly, the University of Illinois made a judgment call. Because Salaita chose to publicly put down a community without realizing that his actions were reflecting poorly on the university, he must accept the punishment that he was bestowed. 

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