Ever since 1926, Chief Illiniwek, who is normally portrayed by a university student, was known for rallying crowds and entertaining halftime audiences with traditional tribal dances. The Chief’s existence, though, came under fire after a number of Native American groups argued that mascot was offensive, racist and no longer a suitable representation of the university.
This controversy is not limited to Chief Illiniwek, for universities all over the land were coming under fire for insensitive mascots. For example, in Oxford, Miss., the University of Mississippi caused commotion on campus when it stripped Colonel Reb of his official mascot status and banned him from the football field. Col. Reb was deemed relic of a racist past.
With the cries of political correctness ringing from sea to shining sea, it was inevitable that the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) would chime in and donate its two cents. The NCAA did just that and sided with those fighting to remove the questionable mascots.
It was determined by the NCAA that any university or college maintaining a mascot in the ilk of Chief Illiniwek would be barred from hosting any postseason NCAA sporting events. For a while, the University of Illinois stood by its Chief and such a stand prevented the school from hosting two low-profile postseason events. But in the wake of mounting political pressure, the university led Chief Illiniwek out to pasture last week.
And while sports fans may be agonizing or celebrating such decisions, students at the Illinois campus are still knee deep in a controversy loaded with passion and politics.
It should come as no surprise that college campuses serve as breeding grounds for debate, discussion and discourse. Students go to college for the dual, and sometimes contradictory, purpose of having their beliefs challenged and their minds opened. Such a process, when combined with the cultural C-4 of an issue like Chief Illiniwek, can create explosive situations.
According to the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), such an explosion occurred when the University of Illinois administration decided to open an investigation threatening to discipline a student for posting a hyperbolic comment concerning an opponent of Chief Illiniwek on the interactive website Facebook.com.
Facebook.com is a popular Web site among college students and serves as an online forum to meet new people and express views. It is an interactive extension of the marketplace of ideas.
In November 2006, in response to a strong push to kick Chief Illiniwek to the curb, a group of Illinois students created a page on Facebook.com entitled “If They Get Rid of the Chief I’m Becoming a Racist.” The Web site served as a place for online venting, and many students favorable of the Chief would routinely post comments criticizing the Chief’s most vocal opponents.
One student, whose name was unknown at the time of publication, was frustrated by the success of the movement to depose the Chief.
In response to his frustration, the student posted this comment: “apparently the leader of this movement is of Sioux decent… the Sioux are the ones that killed off the Illini Indians [sic], so she’s just trying to finish what her ancestors started. I say we throw a tomohawk [sic] into her face.” This is when the Illiniwek controversy moved from football to the First Amendment.
According to a press released issued by FIRE, “On January 8, 2007, a group of the school’s American Indian Studies Program faculty and staff at the Native American House publicly asked the university to ‘initiate disciplinary proceedings’ against the student who posted the comments.”
Richard Herman, chancellor of the University of Illinois, responded to the request by firing off an email to the university community. In the email, Herman stated he “can not and will not tolerate such violent threats. The University will take all legal and disciplinary actions available in response to the threatening messages.”
The decision by Herman to initiate disciplinary proceedings did not sit well with FIRE, a free speech watchdog group that fights to preserve First Amendment freedoms on college campuses across the nation.
“Administrative attempts to punish students for online jokes seem to have reached epidemic proportions,” argued Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE. Lukianoff believes that the university is exploiting the Illiniwek situation to potentially punish speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
“This is an attempt to punish students for speech that some people found offensive under the guise of protecting students from threats,” explained Lukianoff.
Lukianoff further contends that the university is overreacting and told The Bulletin that nobody could reasonably believe that the hyperbolic comment was to be taken literally.
“Obviously, the student’s Facebook comments were not truly meant to incite a tomahawk attack on Illinois’ campus, and it strains credulity to think that administrators actually believe it was,” stated Lukianoff.
Under existing First Amendment precedent, the government’s ability to proscribe speech is limited and applies only to a handful of situations, one of which is incitement to riot.
To Lukianoff, though, the speech on Facebook was less about inciting a riot and was more about young college students doing what they do best—opening their mouths and thinking after they speak. Lukianoff further explains that the effects of such conduct have been heightened with the advancements made by internet technology.
“Students have always engaged in conversations that others may deem inappropriate; social networking sites have just made this type of speech more accessible to administrators,” commented Lukianoff.
Lukianoff continued, “Rather than stepping up their crusade to punish students for offensive speech, administrators should realize that occasional offense is a small price to pay for continuing to honor the wisdom of the Bill of Rights as we navigate through this unparalleled communication revolution.”
The Bulletin attempted to contact Chancellor Herman, but he was unavailable for comment. The communication department at the University of Illinois was unable to comment.