SocraticGadfly: #StevenSalaita is NOT a cause celebre in my book — #schadenfreude!

August 23, 2014

#StevenSalaita is NOT a cause celebre in my book — #schadenfreude!

I had started out planning on just doing a long Facebook/G+ comment, but realized that, like Corey Robin, I was getting into blog-post length.

So, here goes.

Steven Salaita had been offered a tenure-trace position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Indeed, even though the new school year had not started yet, and the board of trustees had not officially confirmed his hiring, he was mentioned in university PR as faculty.

Until the latest Israel-Hamas violence, and a series of Tweets by him related to that, corralled with commentary (not all of which I accept in any way) here, which led the university to rescind his appointment.

And now, per my header, modern academia, as detailed by this piece at Puff Hoes, is making him into a cause celebre indeed.

First, anybody who regularly reads me knows I'm not pro-Zionist or even close to it.

But I, although I am in less than no way a Zionist, and I fully support a Palestinian state, do NOT see Steven Salaita as a cause celebre. Nor, unlike a number of academics, do I see this as a constitutional issue or anything like it. Unlike the likes of Corey Robin, I don't necessarily see this as the Israel lobby doing intellectual judo with the phrase "anti-Semitism," either.

I'll be honest that I'm kind of torn on this. His initial Tweets were fine in my world, but, when he went to wishing that West Bank Israeli settlers would "go missing," he was arguably then in hate speech territory; even if not an incitement to violence, it was directed at a particular class of people, and therefore is arguably hate speech.
You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing. — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 20, 2014
And, I would argue that his "go missing" Tweet, though not specifying how the settlers should go missing, wants them to die, if nothing else. And, it doesn't make any objections to how they might die, if that's part of them going missing. 

Per the last link before the quoted Tweet, I disagree with the defender of Salaita that at worst he was talking about kidnapping; I think at worst, he could be seen as talking about killing.

Why didn't he just say that then?
But if “‘go missing’ refers to kidnapping,” why didn’t Salaita just write “kidnap”? After all, he prefaced his statement with the warning that it was “unrefined” and described the settlers with the expletive “fucking.” Why then, after all the build-up, would he resort to a euphemism?
Erm, because he is smart enough and young enough to know that somebody might be looking at his Twitter account and he was trying to play it both ways? 

Anyway, let us consider that to be hate speech, even if not an outright incitement to violence. We know how academia, including the modern Social Justice Warrior type Left, likes its codes like that, just as much as it likes its free speech absolutism for tenure-track faculty.

Well, first, he had not been officially hired yet. Even if he had, you're not "tenured" until you cross the tenure-track finish line. So, what we have is two SJW codes colliding in a big, steaming pile of schadenfreude. And regular readers of my blog know I loves me some schadenfreude. And, I love the sound of petards hoisting in the morning!

And, that's where Puff Hoes jumps the track into the big steaming pile:
That now brings us to Friday's shocking statements. Chancellor Wise declared that "we cannot... tolerate... personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." Yet as a matter of well-settled American constitutional law, the University of Illinois must tolerate "words... that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." 
"Must"? Really? So, should black students then put up with every antic of differently-priced cookie sales and worse done by Young Republican groups? Should women put up with men's rights advocates telling women students that they're "dressing for rape"? I'm sure many people, even if not Brian Leiter, author of the Puff Hoes piece, would disagree.

This all said, I don't give a flying fart if Leiter is a law professor.

Now, one can argue that, as a public institution, a state university has a different standard on speech than, say, a Notre Dame. I'm not a lawyer, but I think that would be a tough sell in the court system still, especially if the state of Illinois also has hate crimes legislation, which could, at a stretch, be brought to bear on matters civil as well as criminal.

That said, per this NPR interview with labor and labor law reporter Steven Greenhouse, even in the public sector, employees' First Amendment rights aren't absolute:
However, if, you know, a government employee does something that really, you know, betrays trust or is direct insubordination or helps an enemy or endangers a nuclear power plant, then the government might say, you know, we have ample cause to fire that person for what he or she said despite, you know, the First Amendment protections of free speech.

I can do that one better.

In my day job as a newspaper editor, the community here fired a police officer for making a socioeconomically biased rant on Facebook. It violated the department's social media policy, which was part of the hiring process. The social media policy was designed to make sure police officers did not appear biased to certain classes of people — very similar to what the university can argue against Salaita.

Even then, though, such protections would apply only after official hiring. Since Salaita had never been hired, he's SOL to put it bluntly. (Related to that, he wasn't fired, because he never was hired.) As part of that, as an educated layperson, I disagree with this post; I think the Illinois case at hand is far different. Especially given that U of I had NOT supported a boycott of Israeli goods and services, I think that the idea, as alleged by some, that board approval would be a rubber stamp is questionable and that, as this layperson understands the term, promissory estoppel may not come into play. The fact that, even though Kubota lost the case at hand, it claimed that promissory estoppel is normally only a cause for defense, not for suit, means that, even with Illinois allowing it here, it's probably got a pretty high bar.

Beyond that, Saltaita's own Tweets would also offer the university additional ammunition against a promissory estoppel claim, beyond their content. The juvenility, beyond just the vulgarity, they should, if otherwise and previously unknown to the university, could be used to argue that it did not know the "full package" it was buying. And, as a non-lawyer, I think the burden of proof would be on Salaita to show that the "full package" was publicly visible and known before this. In other words, in non-legal everyday English, if this comes to a lawsuit, Salaita might need to prove that he was a doofus before midsummer 2014, and that he was a publicly known doofus.

At a minimum, it's not a slam dunk, such a case. Also speaking of slam dunks? College boards of regents don't like being assumed to be rubber stamps, either; that I know. So, legal defenders of Salaita? I think you're overassuming.

I can now also say that the University of Chicago has a current professor of law who understands constitutional law no better than Dear Leader, our constitutional law scholar president.

Whether Salaita should have been non-hired, of course, is a different question as to whether or not the U of I was in its rights to do so.  So, too, is the question of "the Israel lobby" having any influence on this decision or not.

Had he not made the "go missing" Tweet, I would be more supportive of him ethically, even if not legally. But, I think he did go a Tweet too far with that.

Follow-up thoughts

But, let's get back to the schadenfreude at the start of this. The academic Left is going to have to decide whether protected speech is more important than protected classes of people, or not, when the two collide.

Let's go further on the issue of tenure. A lot has been rightfully made about universities, both public and private, using ever more part-time adjunct faculty. However, tenure-track professordom has its own problems. Beyond a Saraita, or a Ward Churchill, whether in appearance or in reality, every large university has tenure-track professors who are lazy, who are bad teachers no matter how much or well they public, who commit sexual harassment and worse. This, like many issues in life, per Idries Shah, has more than two sides.

A third side is full-time professors, without them necessarily being tenured. Now, part of that is removing the stigma from being non-tenured. Related to that, part of the solution may be extending the number of years it takes to get tenured.

Another issue is that of "privilege" (forgive me for sounding like an SJW!) and the First Amendment. Academics (setting aside the public vs private schools issue) and journalists (I'm one, so I can speak) often seem to assume they have a special level of First Amendment protection that nobody else does. And, it seems that the higher one goes up  the academic or journalistic ladder, the more common such views are.

Well, other than the government being differentiated from the private sector, last I checked, no class of persons, including no class of employees, had a special privilege to the First Amendment. And I may blog in more depth on this later. Actually, I'm pretty damned sure I will. I think this is part of why certain strands of upper-tier academics and journalists irritate not just man-on-the-street wingnuts, but right-wing talking heads. And, the irritation isn't 100 percent wrong.

Also, it's clear that this issue is about as politicized as the reproductive choice movement, with both "ends" having little room for centrists of some sort. I guess that, in one sense, that's good; despite some academic liberals claiming that U of I's change of mind shows the power of Zionism, it's more complex than that.

It's also an issue of how many younger people, even ones paper-smart enough to be offered tenure-track jobs in academia, aren't necessarily real-world-smart, at least not when it comes to the issue of electronic "devices," the social media world, etc. And I have blogged about that before.

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