Letter to University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign: Academic freedom and social media

Phyllis M. Wise
Chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
Robert Warrior, Department of American Indian Studies (UIUC)

August 7, 2014

Dear Chancellor Wise and Professor Warrior,

I refer to the recent decision by the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign to “de-hire” Professor Steven Salaita, apparently in response to his social media posts on Gaza.  

That social media foster spaces of social change, bypassing the dominant narratives circulated in the establishment media is an observation that has been solidified in US academic and public sphere celebrations of the Arab Spring. In a wide ranging collection of essays, communication experts studying social media point to the democratic possibilities fostered by social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

In my own work on “Voices of Resistance” documenting grassroots-driven social change processes across the globe, I attend to the possibilities of transformative democratic politics grounded in participatory processes enabled by social media. I see the tweets shared by Professor Salaita within this broader context of opening up democratic and participatory spaces, spaces for witnessing, spaces for alternative narrative accounts, and spaces for engaging in broader questions of global organizing that disrupt the public relations-driven one-way communicative influences of powerful social, political and economic actors.

Therefore I argue that Professor Salaita should not only be defended but also celebrated in a University. The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign is lucky to be able to hire not only a scholar who excels in his scholarship, but also an academic that takes seriously the public role of the academe.

Universities have a vital role to play in constituting public discourse and dialogue, especially at a moment in human history where much of the opportunities for authentic participation have been co-opted. It is within this context of fostering, catalyzing, and nurturing democratic possibilities that the participation of Professor Salaita on social media such as Twitter and Facebook plays a key role in opening up possibilities of democratic discourse in ways that are otherwise silenced by mainstream media. Defending the academic freedom of Professor Salaita also includes the strongest defense of his right to participate in social media as a public scholar, engaging publically with his insights and thus contributing to democratic public discourse.

As in the recent unfolding of global communicative flows in response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, through the witnessing of images, narratives, and experiences from the ground, shared through an array of social media networks, we come to account for the effects of violence, the large scale health and human consequences of war, and the one-sided nature of mainstream media communication which often takes the form of propaganda during crises. As we witnessed in the period building up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the mainstream media circulate stories narrated by dominant structures without interrogating the veracity of the frames that are offered by the establishment sources. That such undemocratic one-way communication can have large scale negative consequences are well evident in the realm of US invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza however, accounts and narratives offered by everyday citizens, in conversation with insightful commentaries by a number of public intellectuals offer vital entry points for countering the dominant narratives and their corresponding erasures.

Twitter is an important medium of social change. It draws us into an issue by offering a pithy frame, captured in 140 characters. The writer of the tweet has an opportunity to influence by delivering a robust message packed in a few words. The effectiveness of a message in the twitter sphere can be measured by the number of retweets, likes etc. Moreover, from the standpoint of opening up democratic possibilities, tweets offer new openings for foregrounding alternative frames that might otherwise be absent from mainstream discourse.

Tweets are distinct communicative acts, different from the acts of everyday speech and writing in traditional contexts. Tweets not only differ from communication on traditional media channels but also from other forms of social media communication. In this sense, the linguistic expectations and normative ideals on twitter are distinctly different from the normative ideals on Facebook. The norms regarding communication on twitter and Facebook are different from the norms of writing academic articles. It is from within this contextual framework that one needs to judge the language of Professor Salaita’s tweets. The language of the social media sphere finds its strongest effects in breaking through the discursive norms of mainstream spheres. The nature of civil discourse in social media must therefore be understood in the overarching context of new media expectations, nature of the issue, and history of the issue. Claims to incivility can quickly work to silence the very democratic possibilities that opened up new spaces for imagination in the Arab Spring.  To suggest that Professor Salaita ought to be silenced because his language on twitter is not civil forecloses discursive possibilities.

I end this letter by reiterating my appeal to reinstate Professor Salaita at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  

As a scholar of communication, I am hopeful that you will offer your fullest support to the democratic possibilities that are grounded in commitments to free speech, diversity, and participatory democracy. I hold the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the greatest of respect, and hope that you will continue to reflect the commitment of the University to academic freedom, democracy, and participatory communication.

Please do email me at mohanjdutt@gmail.com if you would like to engage in an opportunity to dialogue.


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