VICTORY: Chicago State to rewrite policies, pay $650,000 to settle professors’ First Amendment lawsuit

By January 8, 2019

  • University repeatedly tried to shut down faculty blog critical of former administration
  • Settlement is the 13th for FIRE’s litigation project, aimed at eliminating campus speech codes that plague 90 percent of public colleges

CHICAGO, Jan. 8, 2019 — Chicago State University has agreed to pay $650,000 to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed by faculty after administrators tried to silence a blog critical of the then-sitting CSU administration. The lawsuit was one of four filed on July 1, 2014, that launched the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

CSU professors Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz filed the lawsuit after the university threatened them with legal action if they refused to shut down their faculty-run blog that criticized perceived corruption and incompetence under former CSU President Wayne Watson. The university alleged that the CSU Faculty Voice infringed CSU’s trademarks and did not comply with the “high standards of civility and professionalism [that] are central tenants [sic] of the University’s values.” The university also asserted that a photo of hedges on campus spelling “CSU” adorning the blog’s landing page violated the university’s intellectual property rights.

As part of the settlement, CSU agreed to reform its unconstitutional cyberbullying and computer usage policies that were challenged in the lawsuit. The latter policy barred “any communication which tends to embarrass or humiliate,” giving CSU administrators carte blanche to go after any faculty speech they disliked.

A month after the administration passed the cyberbullying policy, the then-director of public relations filed a harassment complaint against Bionaz. After an investigation, CSU’s general counsel found Bionaz innocent of cyberbullying for his brief, offhand comments — made in person, not online.

“Four-plus years of mounting legal expenses for a school with scarce resources; four-plus years of scandal and public ridicule for a school whose reputation can afford neither,” Bionaz said. “The conclusion of this action represents a repudiation of the Watson administration’s egregious efforts to stifle speech on the Chicago State campus.”

“I am disappointed that a public university was forced through litigation to protect the First Amendment rights of faculty, staff, and students,” Beverly said. “The final resolution of this case came only after a new president was hired. I am hopeful that the new administration will be mindful of the constitutional protections that we all enjoy and that scarce state resources won’t be squandered because of executive hubris and gross incompetence.”

In March 2014, FIRE implored CSU to back off its demands to censor the professors’ blog to “spare CSU the embarrassment and cost of yet another loss in its repeated and ill-advised battles against the First Amendment.” Just weeks earlier, a jury awarded $2.5 million to a former CSU attorney who faced retaliation for refusing to withhold public records. Before that, CSU was ordered to pay over $200,000 after retaliating against the student newspaper in response to articles critical of the university.

Beverly and Bionaz were represented by attorneys Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C. Jessica Tovrov of Goodman Tovrov Hardy & Johnson in Chicago joined them as counsel on the case.  

“This case should remind administrators of state universities they are not a law unto themselves and must obey constitutional commands,” Corn-Revere said. “Universities can only serve as a true marketplace of ideas when preserving and protecting the First Amendment is a core part of their mission.”

The victory is the 13th settlement in FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. After each victory, FIRE will target another school — sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued. More than 90 percent of top public colleges maintain policies that restrict First Amendment rights.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

 

Schools: Chicago State University Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Chicago State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit