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Chicago State Tries to Shut Down Faculty Blog

Yesterday, Chicago State University’s (CSU’s) legal counsel and vice president for labor and legal affairs Patrick B. Cage sent a cease-and-desist letter to Professor Phillip Beverly, demanding he take down his CSU Faculty Voice blog on which he and several other professors have shared concerns and criticisms about the school since 2009. Cage claimed that the blog infringes on the school’s trademarks and shows a “lack of civility.” FIRE has seen both arguments used previously in attempts to censor protected speech, but neither is a valid reason to shut this blog down.

In his letter, Cage writes that the blog “constitutes, among other things, trademark infringement [and] trademark dilution.” Cage argues that use of CSU’s name on the blog creates confusion: “Specifically, your use of the mark falsely denotes association with CSU in that the comments and views on the Blog are not those of or endorsed by the University.” This might sound familiar to long-time Torch readers; the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) made the same claims in 2009 regarding a website on which a former student criticized the university. At that time, FIRE wrote to UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block pointing out that no reasonable person would think that such a site is endorsed by the university, and UCLA soon withdrew its demands for the website to be taken down.

Similarly, CSU Faculty Voice quite obviously reflects the views of participating faculty members, not CSU as an institution. Just below a post on the cease-and-desist letter, for example, is a post attacking the school’s lack of transparency and accountability. The banner at the top of the page now reads: “Crony State University / ‘Where We Hire Our Friends.’” The site’s previous banner, too, clearly conveyed the blog’s origins: “Chicago State University / Faculty Voice Blog / The faculty’s uncensored voice.” Obviously, this blog is not a commercial venture trying to profit by posing as the university. This is straightforward commentary about CSU and its administration, and CSU may not forbid the use of its name in order to keep this commentary from the public.

Cage also states in his letter that “the lack of civility and professionalism expressed on the blog violates the University’s values and policies requiring civility and professionalism of all University Faculty members.” FIRE has explained before that “civility” mandates often impede free and open debate on college campuses and can easily be used by administrators to censor speech based on its content or viewpoint. Even “uncivil” speech is constitutionally protected unless it falls into one of the few and narrowly-defined categories of speech traditionally unprotected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court noted in Terminello v. Chicago (1949) that free speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” In this case, such a result might be inevitable given the striking accusations contained within the blog. Last week a writer for the blog remarked on CSU President Wayne Watson’s previous complaints about the blog’s “incivility”: “I am not sure how to say in a nice way that someone has lied.”

The cease-and-desist letter continues: “As an educational institution, the University encourages intellectual discourse. Such discourse often includes opposing viewpoints.” But this isn’t the first time CSU has demonstrated that it is not as committed to First Amendment principles as it should be. In an article for Inside Higher Ed today, Scott Jaschik reminds us of a policy FIRE’s Robert Shibley called “one of the most restrictive and misguided policies” he had seen:

Last year, Chicago State University briefly required that all professors have prior approval to talk to any reporter, use social media or engage in most forms of public communication. Facing complaints that the policy was inappropriate and illegal, the university backed down.

And, as I reported here on The Torch in August, CSU was ordered to pay over $200,000 in court costs and attorney’s fees after it retaliated against a former student newspaper editor for the content of several articles. In a CSU Faculty Voice post dated April 6, 2013, entitled “This is How Chicago State Feels About the First Amendment,” a student reports to a blog writer that two campus police officers told the student he or she could not hand out flyers on campus. The blogger laments, “I guess this university is not a place for the free and open expression of ideas.”

This pattern of behavior by the public university conflicts both with CSU’s legal and moral obligations under the First Amendment and with its advertised commitment to free expression. Just as CSU ultimately abandoned its unconstitutional media policy last year, CSU must stop trying to silence criticism of the school with bogus trademark claims and vague “civility” mandates. And with multiple offenses under its belt, perhaps it’s about time for CSU’s board of trustees to step in.

UPDATE: For more on CSU’s long history of attempting to silence speech it doesn’t like, check out Tim Cushing’s article in Techdirt.

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