Updated: Judge rejects UI's attempt to dismiss Salaita FOIA suit

Updated: Judge rejects UI's attempt to dismiss Salaita FOIA suit

URBANA — Controversial professor Steven Salaita will be able to pursue his Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University of Illinois for refusing to release documents about his case.

Champaign County Judge Chase Leonhard on Friday rejected the university's motion to dismiss the case, but he also agreed to strike portions of the complaint outlining the circumstances and fallout from the UI's decision to withdraw its job offer to Salaita.

"This is not a political arena" but a FOIA case, Leonhard said in issuing his order. "We're not here today on the merits of any claim."

The next hearing is scheduled for mid-April.

"There should be no more delay," said Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago.

Salaita's lawyers filed suit against the university in November after being denied a request for public documents related to his case. He had been hired for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program starting last fall, but Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the offer after Salaita posted a series of inflammatory tweets about Israel last summer during its bombing of Gaza. UI trustees upheld Wise's decision in September and reiterated their stance in a formal statement last month.

Salaita had filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of communications from high-ranking university officials and influential alumni regarding his case. A search turned up thousands of emails, but the university has refused to turn them over to Salaita, saying it was "unduly burdensome" to produce them.

The FOIA lawsuit seeks to force the university to turn over the documents.

Salaita also filed a separate lawsuit in federal court last month to force the campus to hire him and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation. The UI has promised to fight what it called his "meritless claims." Friday's ruling does not affect that case.

In its motion to dismiss the FOIA lawsuit, the UI argued that Salaita did not have standing to sue the university for the documents because the initial FOIA request was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

In response, Swaminathan argued that the initial letter to the university indicated that the Center for Constitutional Rights was representing Salaita, calling the university's argument a delay tactic.

Rather than address the merits of the suit and proceed in an expedited manner, the UI filed a "spurious motion" to dismiss that ignores Illinois appellate law in similar cases, Swaminathan argued.

Salaita's attorneys offered to substitute the center as the plaintiff, but the UI opposed that amendment.

Leonhard ruled Friday that he would allow Salaita to amend the complaint in response to the UI's objections over who's the proper plaintiff.

Swaminathan argued that the UI's tactics led to "needless" judicial proceedings at taxpayers' expense.

"The first sentence of the September 17 request states, 'The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is representing Steven Salaita, requests the following documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act,'" he wrote. Subsequent communications made it clear he was the requester throughout the process, he said.

In his initial request, filed Sept. 17, Salaita asked for a variety of information, such as details on hiring policies and communications among more than a dozen officials over several months. It was denied and called unduly burdensome. Salaita narrowed the request, but it still yielded thousands of emails.

Salaita asked the court to order the university to hand over the documents, pay civil penalties and cover his attorney fees and costs.

Leonhard on Friday granted the UI's motion to strike several paragraphs in the lawsuit that it said were unrelated to the FOIA request. Those sections describe the circumstances of Salaita's case and the public outcry that followed, including a faculty boycott.

"If this is a FOIA complaint, why do we have to answer all these allegations?" asked attorney Charles Schmadeke of Hinshaw and Culbertson, the Springfield law firm representing the UI.

Swaminathan said those paragraphs were included to demonstrate the "tremendous public interests in disclosure of the requested records" and counter the UI's argument that the FOIA request was burdensome.

"Because of the devastating impact of the university's decision on Professor Salaita personally, and the hugely important principles at stake — free speech, academic freedom, faculty administration shared governance, insulating faculty hiring decisions from the influence of wealthy donors — the circumstances surrounding Professor Salaita's firing have garnered national attention," the brief said.

But Leonhard told Swaminathan, "Some of your complaints read more like a press release than a legal brief."

Salaita's attorneys have 14 days to file an amended complaint, and the UI will have another 14 days to respond. The two parties are scheduled to return to court April 13 for a status hearing.

Swaminathan said he was happy the case can now move ahead so that Salaita can put to the test the UI's claim that donor influence was not involved in the hiring decision.

"What we are trying to do is obtain the records and have them be available to the public," he said.

UI legal counsel Scott Rice said he was satisfied with the ruling, particularly the judge's order to keep the focus on the FOIA issue.

"This means the case goes on," he said.

Since the board rejected Salaita on Sept. 11, he has been touring the country delivering speeches at a variety of universities, but said last month that he had not found another job.

Comments

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Sid Saltfork wrote on February 13, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Transparency is finally moving forward.  Keep an eye on the Swanlund Building for smoke on the rooftop.  Hopefully, no one will perjure themself during the trial.  Citizens keep hoping that the U.of I. scandals are over, but they keep getting disappointed.  Why stonewall the documents release?  It only raises questions across the nation, and adds to the Illinois image of corruption.

deborah.gordon@wichita.edu wrote on February 13, 2015 at 6:02 pm

After listening to the board of trustees of the university in various media outlets weigh in on Salaita's case, it makes it much easier for me to understand why U of I has had scandals in the recent past, such as when it admitted students who were the children of politicians and donors, even though others were more qualified.  And then the Chancellor who did it never apologized and said he did everything he did out of the "love" he had for the university.  

U of I seems to be a university where a very strange kind of love and caring for the institution exists oddly within a world characterized by modernity-maybe it's all the connections to Chicago and its historical legacy of machine politics and corruption.  I don't know.  It just seems that those who govern the place are determined to sink it.  Sad.  

spangwurfelt wrote on February 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

Maybe things are different at a university that doesn't have a 95% admissions rate the way Wichita State does.

Just a thought.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 14, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Why the snarky reply?  It had nothing to do with the article, or the commenter's point.  Your response was simply based on her e-mail address. 

Either deal with the article, or don't respond with snark.

spangwurfelt wrote on February 15, 2015 at 12:02 pm

"Why the snarky reply?"

Mote, meet beam.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 15, 2015 at 2:02 pm

You were responding to the commenter's e-mail address, not the article or the commenter's comments.  I notice that you more, and more do not respond to articles' content.  Either you respond with snark, or propaganda against anyone who criticizes the nation of Israel.  

The trial with the F.O.I.D. correspondence will give some view of transparency to the incident.  What is wrong with that?

spangwurfelt wrote on February 16, 2015 at 6:02 pm

F.O.I.D.? Someone planning on doing some shooting? As far as I can tell, Salaita's attorneys are firing blanks, and Salaita's shooting off his mouth in all directions, even though he only ends up hitting his own foot.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 17, 2015 at 7:02 am

Nothing about the university's lack of transparency by stonewalling?  Just more snark?  How about dealing with the issue?  Face it, your no comedian.

Why is the U.of I. trying to prevent the documents release?

spangwurfelt wrote on February 17, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Maybe because the University has more important things to do with its time than comply with what's clearly a fishing expedition from a disgruntled ex-not-an-employee trying to cast as wide a net as possible simply to be as big a nuisance as possible?

And face it, your no grammarian.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 17, 2015 at 11:02 pm

Your right about my grammar.  I lack the level of your education.  Thanks for pointing it out.  I doubt that it makes any difference in people understanding either of us.

"More important things to do"?  That implies that the U.of I. is above the law.  Based on previous administrative scandals, that seems to be the case.  The documents will tell more during the trial unless the university feels it "has more important things to do" than showing up in court.

I am still wondering why the university tried to stonewall the provision of the documents.  It only makes the university look like pro-Israel donors were involved in the firing, or not hiring Salaita.  That amounts to conspiracy in the eyes of the taxpayers.    

spangwurfelt wrote on February 18, 2015 at 1:02 pm

"That implies that the U.of I. is above the law."

No, it means recognizing what Salaita's rah-rah squad would prefer to ignore: there is a difference between complying with the law - which the university will do, I'm pretty sure - and complying with Salaita's lawyers' particular unilateral interpretation of that law, which the university of course doesn't have to do unless Salaita's lawyers convince the judge that they're right and the university's wrong. 

You seem to think that it's all just as simple as running to the laser printer and running off a copy of everything. The university has all sorts of privacy laws it must obey. (Ever hear of FERPA, for example?) Each and every last one of those emails needs to be reviewed to see which ones can or can't be legally released, and what information in them is and isn't covered by FOIA. That's why Salaita's lawyers ask for much, much more, by the acre, than they know they're going to get: it increases their nuisance factor. In scrupulous hands, FOIA is an important avenue for oversight of governmental bodies. In less scrupulous hands, it's a great way to put some muscle behind a shakedown scheme.

That the university's decision not to simply put all the emails in a shoe box and drop them off gives habitual anti-Israel ranters a pretext to rant a few more habitual anti-Israel things in the local paper, such as what I'm guessing is your recent letter ... that is, I'm sure, the least of their concerns.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 18, 2015 at 4:02 pm

By hiding the documents, it confirms the public's perception of donor influence.  Why not release all of the documents that were correspondence to a state university?  It would clear up the matter.  If an individual or individuals sent correspondence to a state university's administration regarding the choice of hiring or retaining a faculty member, it should be public knowledge.  Why are you so deadset against all of the documents being released?  What is there to hide?

Yes, I am a critic of Israel's actions at times.  I am a critic of other nations actions also.  That does not make me anti-Israel.  It does not make me anti-semitic.  It does make me as a U.S. citizen concerned for my country's international policy. 

By the way, I have not ever sent a Letter to the Editor.  Nice try at propaganda again though.

nateo wrote on February 13, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Once again, we see that UIUC will refuse to do anything until a judge intervenes. Nice folks they've got in the Office of University Counsel. I can't wait until they get their asses handed to them in federal court.

deborah.gordon@wichita.edu wrote on February 13, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Yeah, I think it's unlikely that U of I will come out of this unscathed, even if eventually Salaita loses.  This is one of those cases where to win is to lose--your reputation among a national community of scholars, the AAUP, and internationally.  Except of course among the well-heeled who can organize their less well heeled brethren to stick their noses into places that they really don't belong.  And that includes faculty who aren't in the program who did the work, put in the elbow grease, to vet candidates, interview them and then make the offer to Salaita.  These faculty who didn't do the work, should only intervene if they want their searches in their department to be overturned by some colleague in another field who doesn't do research, publish or teach in their's.  

spangwurfelt wrote on February 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

The worst that could happen to the UIUC is that it would have shown some procedural problems in the grey zone between almost-hired and really-hired.

The worst that could happen to Salaita already has: he's shown academia that he's actually a bit of an idiot, and that's why his legal stance has to be "my career is over."

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 14, 2015 at 1:02 pm

The worst that will, and has happened is another scandal by the namesake university of the State of Illinois confirming to the nation and worldwide universities that Illinois is just another word for CORRUPTION.  The huge amounts of money paid to the U.of I. administrators over the many years were misspent on incompetency.  They must have to pay someone to call their dog for them.

Rocky7 wrote on February 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm

All this proves is that one can never predict what a judge will do.

Bulldogmojo wrote on February 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm

 

"unduly burdensome" to produce them

Translation: unduly burdensome to manually redact all the lines that will show Wise and her goons are the donor pandering creeps they are accused of being.

Otherwise if they knew how many documents there were from their initial keyword searches, why not spend the 5 minutes it would take to put them on a thumb drive and turn them over?

deborah.gordon@wichita.edu wrote on February 13, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Exactly.  Also, they would be embarrassed, but really, they've already embarrassed themselves, so they just should have not fought this, and they should just produce the docs, because they're all going to come out at trial anyway.  Dumb. 

jgrout wrote on February 13, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Salaita would have been a trashy hire... he is an activist pretending to be a scholar.

Chancellor Wise did the right thing by vetoing his appointment.  She should also investigate the department that offered him a position for possible elimination... money is tight, the campus cannot afford any departments staffed by activists pretending to be scholars and the most straightforward way to dismiss unwanted tenured faculty is to eliminate their entire department.

deborah.gordon@wichita.edu wrote on February 13, 2015 at 6:02 pm

You don't know what you're talking about; he's published more books than a lot of the faculty at U of I and certainly more than you.  But do keep banging your drum.  It sounds so good to my ears to hear someone defend a Chancellor from an act that was so obviously not going to hold up in court.  

Also, if money is tight at U of I, I would advise that they hire legal counsel who do not provide such poor advice to their Chancellor as to tell her, "yeah, let's keep all the docs that we're required by law to produce to ourselves.  THAT will definitely help our case."  

spangwurfelt wrote on February 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

"he is an activist pretending to be a scholar."

You can be both. What Salaita wasn't able to do was be all three: an activist, a scholar, and someone who is not an idiot.

spangwurfelt wrote on February 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

"Leonard granted the UI's motion to strike several paragraphs in the lawsuit that it says are unrelated to the FOIA request. Those sections describe the circumstances of Salaita's case and the public outcry that followed, including a faculty boycott."

So the "rich Zionist donors are conspiring against me" thing goes up in flames literally the first day it comes in contact with a judge.

Get used to it, Salaita. You're going to be seeing a lot of that.

rsp wrote on February 13, 2015 at 11:02 pm

This suit is about the FOIA. Some of the background was unnecessary to the issue at hand but it has nothing to do with whether his other suit in federal court has merit.

spangwurfelt wrote on February 15, 2015 at 12:02 pm

It's consistent with his general strategy, though: be as big a pain in the butt as possible, to gain as much negotiation space as possible in the light of his upcoming and inevitable defeat. This is now all about the size of the shakedown.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 15, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Whether he wins or loses, the taxpayers whose money goes to the university will have some access to transparency.  It goes beyond Salaita now.  It goes to doubt about the administrators, and the Board of Trustees motivated actions.  It goes to concern about another U.of I. scandal in a long line of scandals.  It goes to who, and what influences administrators' decisions.  Is it money?  Is it politics?  People have a right to know.

Bulldogmojo wrote on February 13, 2015 at 9:02 pm

 

Since the Salaita matter, Israel and the condemnation of Israel's brutality are inextricably linked in this discussion, I found the remembrance piece of the late journalist Bob Simon and his coverage of Israel of particular relevance to this discussion.

http://www.charlierose.com/watch/60515242

spangwurfelt wrote on February 18, 2015 at 1:02 pm

"F--- you, Israel. And while I'm at it, f--- you too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS." - Bob Simon.

Oh, wait, that wasn't Bob Simon, was it. It was Supergenius Steve Salaita, showing us the startling depth of thoughtful insight we're somehow supposed to be discomforted to have lost.

spangwurfelt wrote on February 18, 2015 at 1:02 pm

"F--- you, Israel. And while I'm at it, f--- you too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS." - Bob Simon.

Oh, wait, that wasn't Bob Simon, was it. It was Supergenius Steve Salaita, showing us the startling depth of thoughtful insight we're somehow supposed to be discomforted to have lost.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 18, 2015 at 4:02 pm

More propaganda?  Stick to the article.  Please don't imply that faculty never use the F word in their private, and academic lives. 

The heart of the matter is donor influence on a state university administration.  The release of all of the documents are needed to clarify the administration's decision.  What is there to hide?  Total transparency would put the incident to rest.  It is a taxpayer funded university.  The citizens have a right to know.

andrewscheinman wrote on February 14, 2015 at 1:02 pm

I've been filing FOIAs with UIUC for the last 2 years over nepotism and big-$ (Peter Fox) influence in the Research Park.  If you want to see a prelude of what's going to happen in the federal trial, I posted an email from Wise on samizdat-startups.org in which she states Salaita's free speech rights -- if it looks as if you've never seen this before, you're right, you haven't, because UIUC FOIA never produced it.

 

Just a prelude of illegal actions by UIUC-FOIA, just a prelude of what might (perhaps) come out about what the desire to build the medical center is doing to a once-great university.

 

And let me add that I'm probably for the Med center, and certainly not against Carle, I just think that the med center should be discussed openly ... and that Carle needs to do a lot more for the community.

Andrew Scheinman

andrewscheinman wrote on February 14, 2015 at 1:02 pm

I've been filing FOIAs with UIUC for the last 2 years over nepotism and big-$ (Peter Fox) influence in the Research Park.  If you want to see a prelude of what's going to happen in the federal trial, I posted an email from Wise on samizdat-startups.org in which she states Salaita's free speech rights -- if it looks as if you've never seen this before, you're right, you haven't, because UIUC FOIA never produced it.

 

Just a prelude of illegal actions by UIUC-FOIA, just a prelude of what might (perhaps) come out about what the desire to build the medical center is doing to a once-great university.

 

And let me add that I'm probably for the Med center, and certainly not against Carle, I just think that the med center should be discussed openly ... and that Carle needs to do a lot more for the community.

Andrew Scheinman