Chicago State Stomps out Free Speech

July 7, 2014

By Azhar Majeed at Chicago Tribune

As residents of Chicago know, Chicago State University has run into a seemingly never-ending series of legal and administrative problems over the years. So it’s probably no surprise that Chicago State fares poorly in respecting the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty.

That’s why the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I am an attorney) helped two faculty members file suit against the school last week. It’s one of four lawsuits launched on a single day with the aim of changing the culture of censorship on campuses nationwide to one where free speech is respected. It’s no accident that Chicago State is one of the initial targets, given the university’s restrictive approach to dissent and dialogue.

University policies that unconstitutionally restrict speech — speech codes — are an affront to student and faculty rights. Schools that maintain speech codes have consistently lost in court when trying to defend these policies. On more than two dozen occasions over the past 25 years, colleges have either seen their speech codes struck down by a court or been forced to settle the case. The case law on speech codes is clear and long-settled.

Yet institutions like Chicago State continue to flout the Constitution.

In May, the university adopted a cyberbullying policy aimed at squelching any criticism of its leadership and administration. The policy broadly bans any “electronic speech” that “harms,” “is intended to harm” or “harasses” a member of the university community — without defining or limiting these terms at all. Consequently, the policy encompasses mere hurt feelings, embarrassment, subjective damage to reputation and emotional harm. This gives Chicago State unchecked power to punish speech that administrators simply don’t like. The First Amendment doesn’t allow this kind of content- and viewpoint-based enforcement.

Chicago State has demonstrated a pattern of attempting to silence criticism and dissenting viewpoints. The university has repeatedly tried to shut down a blog published by several faculty members, CSU Faculty Voice, which documents allegations of mismanagement by the university administration and provides links to relevant public documents. Chicago State’s general counsel sent the faculty members a cease-and-desist letter last year ordering them to “immediately disable” the website “in order to avoid legal action.” Two of the professors who write for the CSU Faculty Voice are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last week. The lawsuit also challenges the school’s computer usage policy, which prohibits, among other things, “any communication which tends to embarrass or humiliate any member of the community.” The policy provides no indication of what might constitute such expression, despite the vagueness of the terms “embarrass” and “humiliate.” This gives Chicago State carte blanche to go after any speech that is critical of the university, questions its policies or leadership, or takes viewpoints the administration does not favor.

The students and professors of Chicago State deserve better protection for their free speech rights than they have received so far. We are determined to help bring it to them.

Schools: Chicago State University Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Chicago State University – Stand Up For Speech