Updated: UI says email review in Salaita FOIA case may take weeks

Updated: UI says email review in Salaita FOIA case may take weeks

URBANA — It could take weeks for the University of Illinois to review the nearly 10,000 documents ordered released by a Champaign County judge in the Steven Salaita case, a UI spokeswoman said Friday.

And it’s unclear what information might be “redacted,” or deleted, once the documents are released, based on lawyers’ arguments Friday.

Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis ordered the UI to turn over thousands of pages of documents sought by Salaita under the Freedom of Information Act. Salaita is hoping to prove that donors upset with his angry tweets about Israel influenced the UI’s decision to withdraw his job, which the UI denies.

Difanis said the public interest in knowing whether outside influence was involved in the hiring decision outweighed the university’s claim that producing the documents was “unduly burdensome.”

“Is there undue influence on hiring? Is that an important public interest? It’s the court’s opinion that it is,” Difanis said.

Salaita’s attorneys welcomed the ruling, and UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university would comply.

“We continue to maintain it’s an unduly burdensome request,” she said after the hearing. The UI’s lawyers declined comment.

The ruling came after months of procedural motions in Salaita’s FOIA lawsuit against the university, filed last November after he was denied a request for public documents related to his case.

“This should finally provide the records and allow the public to see if what the university has been telling us is true,” said Salaita attorney Anand Swaminathan of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago.

The judge did not impose a deadline for the UI, but Swaminathan said he hoped the documents could be produced quickly, as the initial request was filed more than six months ago.

The university will try to clarify the time frame with Difanis, Kaler said. She wasn’t sure if the UI will hire outside help to review the documents.

“It absolutely cannot be done with the staff available in the normal FOIA time frame,” she said.

Kaler said the judge’s order relates to an amended request for documents filed by Salaita in January, after his lawyers had narrowed it twice. It included only one of the nine items in his original request, which asked for records of communications among 37 people over 21 months, she said.

Kaler said the university was still negotiating with Salaita’s lawyers to narrow the request further when the lawsuit was filed.

“We didn’t respond as quickly as they wanted,” she said.

Typically, she said, the university will negotiate over FOIA requests that are too large or too broad to fulfill in the 10-day time frame required under the law. If the two parties agree, the UI will then release the documents in batches over time, she said.

“We weren’t saying we didn’t want to give these documents out,” she said. “We were saying we wanted to be able to give these documents out in a way that is more realistic.”

‘We could be back here’

Representing the UI, attorney Charles Schmadeke of Hinshaw and Culbertson in Springfield argued that an exemption in the FOIA for communications involving the “deliberative” process of making decisions may allow the UI to delete that information, undermining the documents’ usefulness.

Swaminathan said some documents may fall under that exemption but it’s “speculative” to argue.

Later, outside the courtroom, he expressed concern that the UI may be too “aggressive” about redacting information, adding, “We could be back here again.”

At the hearing, Salaita’s lawyers said the extensive media coverage and public interest in the case, and important issues of free speech and academic freedom, outweighed any burden on the UI.

Difanis acknowledged that those were important issues but cited that the public’s interest in the hiring process at a taxpayer-funded institution was paramount.

“Basically, what we have here is a hiring decision,” he said.

He cited previous cases where political pressure played a role in university decisions, including the 2009 Category I “clout list” admissions scandal, in which politically connected applicants received preferential consideration. It’s not always the UI’s fault, Difanis said. “They do the best they can considering we’re in the state of Illinois.”

‘Not a Kardashian’

Schmadeke argued that there’s a difference between a “profound public policy” interest and mere publicity or “curiosity.” He likened the interest in the Salaita case to the Kardashian family.

But Swaminathan responded that Salaita is not a celebrity: “Steven Salaita is not a Kardashian. So why are they writing about Steven Salaita? Because of the issues in this case.”

The UI argued that it would involve “tremendous expense” to hire enough staff to go through the documents.

But Difanis said the university is a large entity that can accommodate the request.

Swaminathan said some of the emails were duplicates, and many emails sent to the UI through online petitions supporting Salaita could be eliminated easily. UI officials say it will still take time to review them to make that determination.

Schmadeke argued that Salaita’s real motivation was to bolster his employment claims against the university. Salaita filed a separate lawsuit in federal court to force the campus to hire him and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation. A judge has yet to issue a ruling on the UI’s motion to dismiss the case.

The university asked Difanis for a stay on the FOIA case until the federal case is resolved, but the judge declined, saying he would leave that to an appellate court.

The federal case entitles Salaita to obtain documents through the discovery process, which has already begun, Swaminathan said. But the university also wants the right to keep documents confidential in that case, which would not be in the public interest, he said.

Salaita was offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program in October 2013, but Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the job on Aug. 1, 2014 — three weeks before he was to start teaching — after Salaita posted his controversial tweets. UI trustees upheld Wise’s decision in September and reiterated their stance in a formal statement in January.

Salaita celebrated Friday’s decision on his Facebook page, thanking friends for their “love and energy throughout this ordeal.”

“At the very least, we should soon have a much better documentary record of the process and its participants,” he wrote.

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andrewscheinman wrote on June 12, 2015 at 8:06 am

My prediction: unlikely the judge will throw it out, very likely he'll let it drag on into arguments about burdensomeness.  Truth is, that FOIA request IS burdensome, and I don't say that with any love for the UIUC FOIA office.

80% of what that FOIA is seeking could EASILY be obtained by massive citizen-filed FOIAs, as I've already demonstrated on samizdat-startups.org, there's a very short time period involved for the critical communications (July 21 to August 1 or thereabouts) and a very small number of major players involved (Wise, Adesida, Burbules, Barb Wilson, Travis Smith, Dan Peterson, Bob Easter, possibly Kennedy (although I think he's a lot smarter about not writing emails).

Multiple people filing for all emails sent by those main players in that short period would very likely succeed:  targeted requests are really hard to argue create undue burden, and, more importantly, show a responsible exercise of FOIA rights.

Again, I'm no fan of UIUC-FOIA, but FOIAs do take time and energy to answer, even when the FOIA office WANTS to answer them (I don't think UIUC FOIA wants to answer these).  Responsible FOIA filings here are very obtainable, are morally appropriate -- and save money that would otherwise be spent on lawyers.

How much has UIUC spent on legal arguments about Salaita?  150K? More?

Andrew Scheinman

Bulldogmojo wrote on June 12, 2015 at 8:06 am


How is it burdensome? If you pull up the search results of what someone wants you can drop it right on a thumbdrive. How can they say they know exactly how many emails it is and not be able to copy it right then and there.

What's burdensome is designating someone to redact all those documents in such a way that will square with Phyllis Wise's lies on the matter and save her job.

Cracks in her story are already coming to light, easter lied to electronic intifada on video about what he knew.


andrewscheinman wrote on June 12, 2015 at 9:06 am

It's burdensome because UIUC-FOIA claims they can't do keyword searches, therefore they get a FOIA request and immediately send it on to someone or someones who they think might have the information and let them go through their emails (or files) and send those on to UIUC-FOIA, which then redacts it.

The CCR FOIA request was spectacularly large, and I don't understand why they are pushing on that before the court, except that it makes for good saber rattling.

My approach has been to file FOIAs specifically for certain people's sent emails for certain date ranges, as a result I uncovered the Wise/Burbules/Tolliver conversations, the Adesida stuff, the Wise extolling Salaita's free-speech etc.

I don't like UIUC-FOIA at all, I think they have a process designed to produce incomplete results and to allow for hiding information.  Heck, 3 years ago the Illinois Attorney General's office said point blank that UIUC engaged in illegal behavior when it comes to FOIA responses.

I do however think that the CCR request was way too broad, and that, in this case, UIUC is probably not off base in saying so.

Andrew Scheinman

Lostinspace wrote on June 12, 2015 at 11:06 am

Once again we are reminded that a firm commitment to the unimpeded quest for knowledge is the hallmark of a great university.

andrewscheinman wrote on June 12, 2015 at 12:06 pm

So I'm happy to have been proved wrong about what the court would do ... unfortunately, the questions now are at least three-fold:

1) What's the timeframe for compliance by UIUC?  2 weeks?  2 months?  2 years?  Note that I just got a FOIA result that UIUC won't release the files it's been putting into its public archives on Salaita, so a win over a 6 month delay ... isn't that much of a win.

2) What won't they disclose?  The FOIA process at UIUC is set up to facilitate document non-production by deletion by the people charged with getting the documents.  Will UIUC use Swanlund System Services to do the retrieval, or will it rely on Wise, Adesida, Wilson, Burbules and the rest?  9,000 pages of non-critical documents isn't the same as 100 pages of documents that are highly relevelant, and I continue to believe the way to get those is through targeted filings.

3) Delay due to appeals or other manouevers.  UIUC says it will comply.  But they may also decide to get their compliance stayed while the Federal case goes on.  So again, the victory is wonderful, but may be Pyrrhic.


EdRyan wrote on June 12, 2015 at 1:06 pm

If someone at UIUC hasn't already gone through all this material and organized it then all this expensive legal talent hasn't being doing the job.  

Rocky7 wrote on June 12, 2015 at 5:06 pm

To me, this matter is strictly a contract dispute and the content of the emails is subject to multiple interpretations as to intent.  Although one never knows and I could be wrong, they likely won't influence the outcome that much.


It is my undertanding that the university reached out to Salaita for a settlement and he (or his attorney) declined. That too will be an issue that a judge is likely to consider in a final outcome.


This one "ain't over until the fat lady sings."

mgd wrote on June 13, 2015 at 1:06 am

Well, finally some progress. This is a shameful waste of time and money. I hope that the students are paying attention. Do they know that the University has been cited for lack of freedom of speech? What could be worse for what I consider to be a formerly first rate university that I am still proud to have two degrees from. And not fake computer-user degrees. Real ones where I was there every day and learned so much from being on campus for more than an extra year.

Salaita could have been hired and they wouldn't have wasted so much in staff time and money for gazillions of corporate lawyers.

That the foia requests are so hard to get amazes me. I thought the point was for open and free commmunication, but who knows how many people have to approve them first. Why?

Also, does anyone remember Wise's comment about needing to read Salaita's, and I think other faculty/staff emails. She said that at the beginning. Talk about chilling. I think she said that she was going to monitor people's emails, meaning anyone who ruffled feathers or spoke out.

I grew up in both Urbana and Champaign and am proud of it and of all the wonderful people I knew, staff and faculty, friends and neighbors. What would they have thought of all of this?

Fix this! And let us all get on with making this school better and as fine as it once was.

I thank the judge for seeing reason.

Mary Gates DeRosier

tominmadison wrote on June 13, 2015 at 7:06 am

How could any reasonable person not think U of I is hiding something?


stay classy, u of i



andrewscheinman wrote on June 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Just put up on samizdat-startups.org what the FOIAed documents will look like when they're eventually disclosed 7 dog weeks from now (which is, I believe, 49 human weeks).

As you'll see, everything will be redacted.  Apart from a few random recipient names.

So much for the great win yesterday.  Not to say it wasn't a positive result, but there are plenty of ways to prevent any public information from being made public.  And UIUC-FOIA is really expert at all of them.

I say that from personal experience.


Sid Saltfork wrote on June 16, 2015 at 1:06 pm

Whether Salaita wins or loses, the matter of private donors and others representing a foriegn country's interest in influencing hiring in a state university needs to be examined.  ALL e-mails with any reference to "Salaita" should be available to the public.  Show who influenced the firing, or not hiring. 

Wise sits on corporate boards drawing salaries while being paid as a full-time state employee.  Her statements in the past regarding the Salaita incident leads to speculation that donor, faculty, and other influence in the service of a foriegn country did happen.  What does the U of I have to hide?  Why not be transparent in regard to the matter?

mgd wrote on June 18, 2015 at 12:06 am


Maybe Kaler should be a little quieter. Too late now.

Mary Gates DeRosier