Critiquing Salaita’s complaints

It would seem the capacity to confuse freedom of speech with the utterly unrealistic expectation of freedom from the consequences of that speech is a bipartisan thing. 

The best example of what we speak is an op-ed piece by not-quite-hired Steven Salaita in Monday’s Tribune. I say “not-quite-hired” because when the folks in Champaign got wind of the Salaita’s questionable tweets, they rescinded their job offer to him as a University professor. 

So Salaita bitterly complained that the University did him wrong and, in the name of all First Amendment holiness, he’s fighting to keep his job and for college faculty and students all across this great nation of ours. 

But Salaita’s first problem is his repeated use of the words “fired,” “termination,” and “reinstatement,” because, unless you’re in a Seinfeld episode, you have to be hired before you can be fired and then reinstated. Someone needs to tell the professor the difference between a withdrawn offer and a pink slip. 

And all Salaita had to do is avoid Twitter for one short month and his pending Board of Trustee approval would have been a slam dunk. After that, the unfettered cyber-floor would be his for the tenured taking! 

C’mon! Any decent middle school teacher regularly warns their young charges against the indiscriminate use of social media.

Then he tried to explain his passionate Twitter outburst by claiming, “I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.” 

And his short musings were not merely “critical of Israel’s actions” nor did they “ask difficult questions and find answers that challenge conventional wisdom.” They were blatant blanket statements designed to disparage, dismiss and debase. 

In light of three murdered Israeli teenagers, one tweet advocated the mass murder of West Bank settlers. Another referred to anti-Semitism as something potentially “honorable,” and a third relegated anyone with the temerity to defend Israel to sub-human status.

So I’m still trying to figure out exactly what Salaita meant when he said his academic career was being “destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.” Dude! As a former eight-year Sun-Times Media Network opinion columnist who frequently tested the boundaries, even I think you went too far. 

Salaita attempted to justify his vitriol by asking us to consider his more moderate tweets and entire body of Twitter work before condemning him. But isn’t that like saying, in order to truly understand me, you have to read the bumper stickers on all seven of my cars? And doesn’t that excuse remind you of the NFL abuser who insists he should be absolved for the latest punch because, yesterday, he bought her flowers? 

Then Salaita went on to “clarify” the “true meaning” of two of his oft-cited tweets in 619 characters, which perfectly demonstrates the inherent peril of being relegated to just 140.

And finally, our intrepid professor claimed this kerfuffle has nothing to do with his exemplary classroom work. 

That’s true! 

If he was almost-hired by a university that only cared about the classroom, he’d probably still have an almost-job. But even Sheldon Cooper eventually realized that a university is an expensive proposition that greatly relies upon the kindness of wealthy benefactors. And if you aggravate one or more of those donors, especially when you don’t quite have tenure, it probably won’t turn out too well. 

But the most ironic part of this fascinating scenario is, contrary to Salaita’s hypothesis, it actually proves that unfettered freedom of speech is alive and well.

The professor said exactly what was on his mind without being jailed, tortured or shot. A couple of wealthy alumni exercised their freedom of speech through their wallets. Sixteen separate University departments used their First Amendment rights to vote no confidence in the administration, as did the professors who are boycotting the University and the students who are staging protests.

All imagined nefarious intentions aside, what I can tell you with certainty is, if any red-blooded American citizen lights up Facebook with comments casting a shadow over their company or their boss this evening, I guarantee you they will not have a job tomorrow.

Better yet, try telling your wife (or girlfriend) those pants really do make her butt look big and see what happens.

We’re talkin’ simple Newtonian cause and effect. There ain’t nuthin’ the least bit McCarthy about any of this. 

You see, the real problem is that Salaita isn’t satisfied with freedom of speech. No! What he really wants is freedom from all the consequences of that speech when neither the founding fathers nor the Constitution ever made that kind of promise. 

So dude! You’re done! You don’t have a moral leg to stand on. With your talent, I’m sure you’ll catch on somewhere, but it won’t be at the University of Illinois. They’re not going to back down now. Be grateful you learned a tough lesson early enough in life to come back from it. 

And lastly, if you truly believe that words should never come with consequences, then why are you teaching? 

Jeff Ward is a freelance writer, a former eight-year opinion columnist for the Sun-Times Media Network, the radio co-host of Left, Right and You, and an inveterate political blogger. He can be reached at [email protected]