Late Tuesday, a federal judge completely rejected Chicago State University’s (CSU’s) argument that Stand Up For Speech plaintiffs Phil Beverly and Robert Bionaz may not bring a First Amendment claim against the university. Professors Beverly and Bionaz run a popular blog, the CSU Faculty Voice, which is highly critical of the CSU administration. CSU tried to convince the judge that Beverly and Bionaz had no case because they had no reasonable basis upon which to think that CSU would punish them for criticizing the university. As Torch readers who are familiar with this case know, this argument could not pass the laugh test.
CSU has engaged in a campaign of intimidation against both professors, starting with a letter demanding that Beverly take down the CSU Faculty Voice blog based on several dubious claims of trademark infringement. Since Beverly refused, CSU has steadily escalated its efforts, including initiating disciplinary hearings against Beverly for holding a class in an unauthorized location when he had the students in his public management seminar attend a Faculty Senate hearing to address censorship on campus. Bionaz was also charged with “cyber-bullying” for comments made to a CSU administrator in a face-to-face conversation. The judge, however, didn’t even have to address those incidents in rejecting CSU’s position:
The court begins by considering if the plaintiffs have alleged an actual or imminent injury that is concrete and particularized (standing). … The court’s consideration of these standards starts and ends with the plaintiffs’ allegations about the cease and desist letter sent to Beverly regarding the CSU Faculty Voice blog.
The judge then found that it was “eminently reasonable” for Beverly and Bionaz to consider CSU’s cease-and-desist letter “as a demand to shut down the CSU Faculty Voice blog based on its alleged failure to meet CSU on-line civility standards.”
After denying CSU’s motion to get the case thrown out, the judge referred the case to a magistrate judge to consider Beverly’s and Bionaz’s motion for a court order to suspend CSU’s computer use and cyber-bullying policies while the litigation is ongoing and to explore settlement options.
It’s been a bad month for universities trying to get First Amendment claims thrown out of court. Earlier this month, the judge in another Stand Up For Speech case rejected Iowa State University’s argument that it was merely protecting its trademarks when it censored T-shirt designs by NORML ISU, the school’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
In an unrelated case, a federal judge in New York rejected the State University of New York - University at Buffalo’s bid to stop a student’s lawsuit against it for discrimination and retaliation for protected speech. SUNY Buffalo had argued that its administrators could not have known that barring a student from completing a course based on comments she had made during previous sessions implicated the First Amendment. Chief Judge William Skretny was having none of it:
Defendants go on to urge that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because the First Amendment’s applicability to speech on college campuses is not a clearly established right of which a reasonable person should have known. The plethora of Supreme Court authority on this issue says otherwise. Accordingly, Defendants motion to dismiss this claim is denied.
FIRE has said for years that public universities that limit free expression are flouting well-established law. Not surprisingly, federal judges agree.