UI requests dismissal of students' free-speech suit over protest fallout

UI requests dismissal of students' free-speech suit over protest fallout

URBANA — The University of Illinois is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by three students that accuses it of violating students' rights to free speech, free press and due process.

Another defendant, graduate student Tariq Khan, filed a counterclaim requesting damages from plaintiffs Andrew Minik, Joel Valdez and Blair Nelson, who write for the website Campus Reform and are — or were — members of the campus conservative group Turning Point USA@UIUC.

The federal lawsuit filed in April accused the UI of issuing restraining orders against student journalists because of their political views and preventing them from doing their job.

After Tariq Khan allegedly grabbed Valdez's phone last year at a protest of President Donald Trump in front of the Alma Mater and threw it to the ground while Nelson was filming, Minik wrote about the incident for Campus Reform.

About a month later, on the day Khan appeared in court on a misdemeanor charge of criminal damage to property, the three plaintiffs were issued no-contact directives by assistant dean of students Rony Die. (Khan later had the charge against him dismissed after successfully completing a second-chance program.)

The no-contact orders "effectively ban the students from observing, reporting on or videoing Khan or his activities on campus," according to the lawsuit filed by Chicago attorney Whitman Brisky. "Nor could the students, in the exercise of proper journalistic ethics, even contact Khan for his reaction or comment prior to publishing stories about him to assure balanced reporting."

But the UI says the order was not content-based and did not restrict the plaintiffs from publishing.

"The targeted restriction in contacting Khan does not prevent plaintiffs from gathering information about him and his activities from other sources and in no way interferes with their right to publish that information," Springfield attorney Charles R. Schmadeke wrote on behalf of the UI, later saying that "the dean's suggestions on how Minik could 'improve' the situation hardly constitutes a restriction."

Die had suggested Minik not write about Khan any more a day after Minik had been asked to leave a building where Khan's wife was.

She "felt threatened and afraid when Minik and Valdez and two other men showed up," according to Khan's counterclaim.

In their lawsuit, Minik said they were there for a 3-D-printing lab presentation.

The university also argues that the plaintiffs' free-speech rights weren't violated.

"While publishing a news article is protected, comments about Khan's children, his age, and kicking and beating him do not rise to the level of matters of public concern" that warrant protection from retaliation, Schmadeke wrote.

At the Trump protest, Valdez called Khan, 39, a "50-year-old man" and said, "Don't you have kids to look after," according to the students' lawsuit.

Later, Minik tagged Khan on a meme of Trump that said "Get him out of here ... beat the (expletive) out of him ... I'll pay the legal fees."

And in February, Valdez liked a Facebook post from a friend that said he could "beat his (expletive) for you bro" and commented "Do it ASAP."

The students' lawyer argues that these posts were sarcastic and that the code of conduct is too vague.

"The university code of conduct, and provisions under which they are being disciplined, in effect allow the university to discipline you if anything you say makes a student uncomfortable," Brisky told The News-Gazette.

And he said the social-media threats are protected speech.

"You got to have an imminent threat that has to be likely to cause harm," Brisky said.

In his counterclaim, Khan is seeking more than $50,000 in damages for "intentional infliction of emotional distress" and hate crimes.

After the Trump protest, Khan alleges that his Facebook page and university email address were posted online "at sites known to be supported by racists and hate-group supporters."

This led to more than a dozen threatening emails or messages, Khan alleges, including many that mock his race and beliefs.

"You are so screwed little man," an email to him allegedly said. "You bees a tuff guy on da video (sic). Grow up. Seek guidance from your Imam and good luck with your career at McDonalds."

"Khan suffered severe emotional distress, including but not limited to fear, anxiety, sleeplessness, concern for his family's safety and all manner of severe emotional distress which is continuing and ongoing," according to the counterclaim filed Tuesday by his lawyers.

Khan declined to comment Wednesday.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler also declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said, "The university is committed to protecting the rights of expression and speech of all members of our community."

-