Saliata FOIA suit proceeds despite University attempt to dismiss

By Camille Murray

Judge Chase Leonhard ruled on Friday to not dismiss Steven Salaita’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University during a hearing at the Champaign County Courthouse.

Salaita himself was not present at the 2:30 p.m. hearing, but was represented by attorney Anand Swaminathan of Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy.

In the lawsuit, first filed on Nov. 17, Salaita claimed the University had violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which requires public bodies to disclose specific records unless those records fall under exemption.

The University attempted to dismiss Salaita’s lawsuit, arguing that because the initial FOIA request was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Salaita had no standing to sue the University.

Swaminathan argued against the University’s assertion, stating the letter to the University made it clear the center was representing Salaita.

Judge Leonhard ruled the case would be able to move forward, but also granted the University’s motion to strike certain paragraphs from the lawsuit that were not necessary.

According to Swaminathan, the stricken paragraphs discussed issues such as the principles of the constitution, academic freedom and shared governance that applied to Salaita’s case. It also discussed the reaction of academics, students and the public to his rejected appointment, including mention of academic boycotts, votes of no confidence in the administration and media interest.

Salaita was offered a tenured position in the American Indian studies program in October 2013; however, after posting tweets regarding conflict in Gaza, Salaita was notified on Aug. 1 that the Board of Trustees was unlikely to approve his appointment. On Sept. 11, the board rejected Salaita in an 8-1 vote and released a statement in January stating their decision is final.

Salaita’s filed the FOIA request on Sept. 17, six days after his appointment was rejected. The University responded to the request and urged Salaita to narrow it.

“The University has said it’d be too burdensome to have to turn over these records despite the tremendous public interest, and we say that’s wrong,” Swaminathan said. “Under the freedom of information laws, these records really belong to the public and should be disclosed to the public.”

On Oct. 15, Salaita issued a new request, which asked for emails between 15 University officials over a three-month period, according to the lawsuit.

The University again orally rejected the request, stating it would require reviewing between 8,000 to 10,000 emails. Salaita responded by reducing the time frame to two months and claims he never received a response.

In a previous interview with The Daily Illini, Campus Spokeswoman Robin Kaler said although Salaita had not received the emails requested, he was involved in ongoing conversation with the University’s lawyers.

Swaminathan said the next step in the lawsuit is for Salaita to file an amended complaint that excludes the stricken paragraphs, which will be done next week. The University will then have 14 days to respond to the complaint. Another hearing is scheduled for April 13.

Camille can be reached at [email protected].