CHAMPAIGN, Ill., February 15, 2007—The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (Illinois) is threatening to discipline a student for posting a hyperbolic comment on Facebook.com that the university interpreted as a threat. The comment concerned the debate over Illinois’ mascot, “Chief Illiniwek.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling on the public university to respect its constitutional obligations and immediately drop its investigation into what was unquestionably protected expression.
“Administrative attempts to punish students for online jokes seem to have reached epidemic proportions,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “This is an attempt to punish students for speech that some people found offensive under the guise of protecting students from threats.”
In November 2006, in response to calls to eliminate the school’s mascot, “Chief Illiniwek,” a group of Illinois students started a Facebook group entitled “If They Get Rid of the Chief I’m Becoming a Racist.” Comments posted on the group’s “wall” included criticism of one of the mascot’s most vocal opponents, including the statement, “apparently the leader of this movement is of Sioux descent … 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.”
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. In response, Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman sent an e-mail to the university community stating that 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.”
FIRE wrote to Chancellor Herman on January 30, 2007, urging the university to cease its investigation of the student for engaging in constitutionally protected expression. FIRE’s letter explained that only “true threats” are devoid of First Amendment protection and that the U.S. Supreme Court has defined true threats as “serious expression[s] of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” By contrast, FIRE pointed out, the Illinois student was “merely using vivid language to complain about those who are pressuring [Illinois] to abandon the ‘Chief Illiniwek’ mascot” and was not “actually threatening to attack someone with an antiquated weapon.”
“Obviously, the student’s Facebook statements were not truly meant to incite a tomahawk attack on Illinois’ campus, and it strains credulity to think that administrators actually believe it was,” Lukianoff said. “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. 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 communications revolution.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Herman, Chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign: 217-333-6290; email@example.com
C. Renee Romano, Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign: 217-333-1300; firstname.lastname@example.org