FOIA Request Reveals That University of Illinois Administrators Conspired to Censor Student Speech

February 1, 2010

FIRE always has plenty to report about the mischief of college administrators as they stifle free expression on campus. Robert reports over at Pajamas Media on the latest from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where administrators were hard at work to ensure that their own students couldn’t advocate for the return of the banned UI mascot, Chief Illiniwek.

Students for Chief Illiniwek (SFCI), a recognized student group at UI, advocates for the return of Chief Illiniwek as UI’s sports mascot. The mascot was retired during the NCAA’s campaign to rid colleges and universities of most Native American mascots. SFCI was formed in response last fall and was intent on holding “The Next Dance,” an event named for the mascot’s traditional dance. While the event did eventually happen, the group ran into quite a bit of trouble along the way. To figure out what sort of shenanigans UI administrators were up to, the group filed a request with the state of Illinois through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Robert reports:

The results of that request provide a startling and disturbing look at the efforts that administrators and some faculty are willing to undertake to try to derail students willing to defy political correctness on campus.

The FOIA documents, which can be downloaded here (warning, large PDF), begin with a September 6, 2009, e-mail from Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs, to Michael DeLorenzo and Anna Gonzalez, associate vice chancellors for student affairs. Romano reported that she had spoken to then-Chancellor Richard Herman about the upcoming “chief dance in the assembly hall” and that Herman was “considering banning student organizations from using the assembly hall.” She said she told Herman that “they might challenge the legality of banning RSOs [Registered Student Organizations] from Assembly Hall, but that I’d be willing to take it on.”

By that evening, Romano had given up on that idea. This excerpt from her 8:57 p.m. e-mail to Chancellor Herman is very revealing: “From my experience, it doesn’t work to develop a policy ‘after the fact,’ after something happens that you’re trying to change. It makes it appear that you’re trying to stop that particular organization which becomes a free speech issue again.”

Darn right it does! Robert continues:

Of course, in the next paragraph, we find out that stopping a particular organization is precisely what they’re trying to do: “I think we’ve done a good job at pushing the program to a time slot that will not be as visible or popular for people to attend. I am hoping that eventually, these events won’t be popular enough to support.” She concludes, “If we’re forced to go forward with this event, Anna [Gonzalez] will most likely have a list of recommendations to help us manage it. Let me know if there’s anything more I can do.” To Herman’s minimal credit, he responded that “the issue is ultimately free speech as long as theyare [sic] an RSO.” He maintained, however, that it “seems a bad idea” for the event to take place.

Not happy to leave the warpath against students’ rights, UI administrators continued their efforts to censor SFCI.

[T]he following day, Romano wrote Herman again, saying in part, “I’m just trying to think of a reason to deny them access to the hall on Oct. 2. At this point they know there’s nothing scheduled.” After further discussion, this idea died as well. But after an e-mail from Emeritus Professor Stephen Kaufman demanding that the university rescind approval for the event, Edward Slazinik, director of the Illini Union, sent a September 15 e-mail noting that the event had not yet been officially registered.

An e-mail response from Anna Gonzalez came the following day, asking, “Since they have not registered the event for this year, can the event be pulled? Is there a time limit for that — say, they have to register an event 1 week prior?” However, SFCI’s event dodged this final bullet, as Slazinik responds that such an effort “would only accomplish making the university look foolish.”

Oh, bother! They would have to let the group go through with its scheduled event after all. But some professors, including Robert Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at UI, continued to seek to stifle the group’s expression by demanding that the university take down the posters advertising the event. The university agreed to look into the posting rules to see if there was some way that it could remove the posters without violating its own regulations. But that was not enough for Professor Warrior, who wrote, “I don’t care about posting rules. Hate escalates. It’s a fact. … I am no longer willing to participate on diversity committees like the one I am on that you chair, initiatives, or events.” Having to experience expression that he didn’t like was just a little too much for Prof. Warrior. Maybe taking a job at a public university, which the Supreme Court has called a “marketplace of ideas,” wasn’t a wise career move.

Robert [Shibley, not Warrior] concludes:

Watching administrators and professors flailing madly in their attempts to reconcile the demands of political correctness with the demands of the Constitution and common sense is undeniably amusing. Yet it also goes a long way towards proving what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and other defenders of civil liberty on campus often say: if a rule or principle can be abused or ignored to censor dissenting speech, it will be.

At the University of Illinois, public servants with the exalted ranks of chancellor, vice chancellor, and associate vice chancellor spent hours of effort brainstorming and scheming to stop, move, or otherwise disrupt a student organization’s event through multiple means. How would these same people react if Illinois politicians went to the same lengths to interfere with university events? A high-ranking professor and department director demanded that the university ignore the Constitution and its own policy to prevent students from seeing a “genocidal” poster the meaning of which he doesn’t even understand. How would he react if the police showed the same lack of respect for his Sixth Amendment rights (to a trial by jury, for instance) that he shows for his students’ rights?

First Amendment rights? Parents and students at every university in America should take a close look under the rock turned over by this FOIA request and ask themselves: how much of this goes on at my alma mater?

My guess is: quite a lot.

Schools:  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign