UI looking to further restrict Suburban Express from operating on campus

UI looking to further restrict Suburban Express from operating on campus

CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois officials are investigating how to further limit a controversial Champaign-to-Chicago bus service from operating on campus property.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Lisa Madigan has subpoenaed records from Suburban Express to determine whether the company's policies and practices violated the Illinois Human Rights Act.

Suburban Express came under fire over the weekend for what UI officials called "offensive, bigoted and insulting" statements about Chinese students in an email advertisement to its customers traveling during the holiday season.

Among a list of reasons to use the service, was this: "You won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses," a reference to the UI's nearly 6,000 students from China.

The UI received almost 100 complaints about the email over the weekend, according to campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler. Top UI officials later condemned the ad in a message to campus and emphasized that the university has no business relationship with Suburban Express, adding that the company's buses are prohibited from picking up or dropping off passengers on university property.

Suburban Express responded with two statements with alternate explanations for the comment. The first said that the large number of international students, including many from China, place "a variety of burdens on domestic students. We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable. But we're not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder."

The second statement, forwarded by owner Dennis Toeppen to UI officials Sunday afternoon, was more apologetic. It said the ad was merely pointing out that Asian students had stopped using the service after a 2013 incident in which the company was accused of racism — unfairly, in his eyes.

"We apologize for our insensitive statement, and we hope to do a better job of unifying the campus community in the future, from our office in the heart of Campustown," the statement said.

Late Monday, Suburban Express issued a "full apology" for both the original email and first apology, and it said it plans to "relaunch our company's conduct completely."

"We fully apologize and accept all responsibility for our actions," the statement said. "We have been made aware of the Illinois Attorney General's investigation of our practices as well as (Chicago) Alderman (Ameya) Pawar's call for a hearing. We are working to cooperate with both, and others, to fully respond to and rectify this situation."

Madigan: 'I am concerned'

The state Human Rights Act states that public accommodations cannot be denied to a person or group of people based on factors including age, race, color, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity.

"I am concerned that this advertisement may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers," Madigan said in a press release. The company has 30 days to respond to the subpoena.

Student senator Sam LeRoy on Monday praised UI officials for their quick response and for calling out Suburban Express "not just for this incident but what truly is a long history of harassing students."

But he noted that he still sees Suburban Express shuttles dropping off students directly in front of UI property, including the UI Ice Arena. The company's website lists four pickup locations on campus.

"It certainly gives off an ambiguous impression," LeRoy told Chancellor Robert Jones at a Senate Executive Committee meeting Monday afternoon.

Kaler said some of the company's pickup locations are on city streets, including at Fourth and Armory in Champaign and on Illinois Street in Urbana in front of the Illinois Street Residence Halls. A number of major thoroughfares cut through campus, Jones said, and "we don't have control over city of Champaign or Urbana streets."

But Kaler added, "We're working on seeing if we can do something about that."

The buses also pick up students in front of Altgeld Hall on Wright Street, which is owned by the university. Kaler said the university technically can't prevent someone operating a vehicle from using a university-owned street, but it's reviewing its policies to see what can be done.

"My whole concern is that the university does everything possible to make sure that there's no connection between Surburban Express and the University of Illinois," LeRoy said.

The 'page of shame'

LeRoy and other students take umbrage at the company's "page of shame," where it posts the names of students who have allegedly violated the company's polices, along with their addresses, phone numbers and email addresses and in some cases comments about their families or mental status. He said it amounts to cyberbullying.

The page was no longer available Monday evening, but a cache listed this description: "Think of this as a review site, where we review what we consider to be bad customers. Other merchants: We think you should think twice before doing business with these individuals — or at least require cash payment."

In 2013, Toeppen sued 126 students in small claims court in Ford County for violating the company's "terms and conditions," such as printing out and sharing multiple copies of their online tickets, using tickets on the wrong date or altering the dates on printed copies. After a backlash from UI students, many of the claims were dropped, and others were re-filed in Champaign County, where students would have better access and representation by Student Legal Services on campus.

"It's been a very long and unpleasant situation," Kaler said. "I don't go a month without getting a call from a student saying, 'Oh my gosh, I've been put on this wall of shame; what am I supposed to do?'"

The company is also a "habitual offender" of UI policies banning commercial advertisements from classrooms and other campus property, she said.

"They'll go and put things in classrooms, so we've been diligent about taking down ads, and we send them a cease-and-desist" order, she said.

Kaler said the campus is reviewing its policies to see if it has some recourse "when a company or an organization behaves so inappropriately ... to send a clearer message to our university community that we're not associated with them, and that they ought to use caution when dealing with that company."

Suburban Express' second statement on Sunday blamed a handful of "cheaters" for amplifying complaints about the company on social media.

It said customers who wrote bad checks, used counterfeit tickets or reversed their credit card charges after using the shuttle service had cost Suburban Express and its customers thousands of dollars over the years and should be held responsible for their actions.

Regarding the 2013 incident, the statement said an employee of a subcontracted bus company made an “inappropriate comment” to a non-English-speaking customer, and Suburban Express quickly apologized. It blamed a “student agitator” who “made it his full-time job to tell the world that Suburban Express is racist.” (That student filed a complaint with police saying he was harassed by Toeppen on Reddit and the company’s website; Toeppen was arrested in Highland Park but later found not guilty of two misdemeanor counts of online harassment.)

Sunday’s statement said the company was “very hurt” by the loss of student riders from Asia after the 2013 incident.

“When we wrote a recent promotional email, we mentioned that Suburban Express riders would not encounter Chinese exchange students on our buses. That’s because they all ride our competitor now. It was an ill-advised statement to make, because it upset the very people we were sad to have lost.
“Suburban Express welcomes students of all nationalities on our buses. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to further their own agenda,” it said.

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CallSaul wrote on December 05, 2017 at 9:12 am

They bragged in their ad that anyone willing to put up with their very bad service would at least have the 'benefit' of not having to be around Chinese people...

This is after they already lost the business of many many international students because of their past blatant racism...

I'd say there's probaly a pretty good case to be made.

Just wait until more students --- international and from the US --- come forward with more and more stories of abuse and other bad behavior...


illinijd wrote on December 09, 2017 at 11:12 am
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Wait...doesn't the UI pledge to respect "any" speech, even if it's hateful?

SO, the UI wants to run a Biz out of town....what a bunch of Snowflakes and Hypocrites!

CallSaul wrote on December 09, 2017 at 11:12 am

Ah...the old you're obligated to tolerate my intolerance line.

We haven't seen a rightwinger trot out that tired old lazy script in quite a while.

You guys still can't do any better than that, huh...?

...well, reactionaries never have been very creative or original, have they...?

No person and no institution is obligated to tolerate your reactionary rightwing intolerance just as no person and no institution is obligated to protect, let alone respect, your reactionary rightwing intolerance...

You rightwing reactionaries snowflakes demand the right to spew your racism and bigotry while also simultaneously demanding that you bear no personal responsibiity for your ignorant racist and bigoted speech and behavior...

You'll just have to add this to the list of your many many many resentments because that's not how it works, snowflake...

illinijd wrote on December 09, 2017 at 11:12 am
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Wait...doesn't the UI pledge to respect "any" speech, even if it's hateful?

SO, the UI wants to run a Biz out of town....what a bunch of Snowflakes and Hypocrites!

wayward wrote on December 05, 2017 at 4:12 pm

One thing UI sure as heck does control is buildings on campus, including housing.  They could start actively posting warnings about Suburban Express and any other businesses run by Dennis Toeppen.  Bathroom stalls are a particularly effective location for posting information -- Campus Rec already does this.

juandez wrote on December 05, 2017 at 6:12 pm

Hey Henry,

You sound pretty bitter.

You may want to take a few deep breaths.


Who exactly is "they" and who exactly is "we?"


I can tell I'm a fellow taxpayer, and I disagree with everything you wrote. I know many other people who do as well.


So your idea of "we" all agree with you is kind of amusing and unfortunate. 


Blatant racism is uncool.

The Gipper wrote on December 05, 2017 at 9:12 pm

Bunch of cry babies. Some people just plain need to get a life.

CallSaul wrote on December 05, 2017 at 10:12 pm


Such namecalling and hatred...

...for shame...

CallSaul wrote on December 06, 2017 at 10:12 am

Not to mention your ignorantly racist comment here: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2017-12-05/urbana-council-discusses-causes-racial-disparity-traffic-stops.html#comment-684194

In in, you ignorantly write: 

'Actually, the worst drivers by far in the area are the Chinese. We all know it, and have experienced it. Not racism, just fact. An officer himself told me the same thing.'

Your ignorant racism is what's wrong with this country...