Jim Dey | Free-speech group files lawsuit over UI policies

Jim Dey | Free-speech group files lawsuit over UI policies

Having filed existing lawsuits against the universities of Michigan and Texas over alleged violations of student free-speech rights, Virginia-based Speech First has targeted the University of Illinois.

The organization, which proclaims that "free speech on campus matters," filed a 29-page lawsuit last week against the UI at the U.S. District Court in Urbana.

The lawsuit, picking up on complaints made by students who were not identified, accused the UI of squelching free speech on campus through policies — one requires "prior approval" for posting leaflets — and practices aimed at intimidating students into silence, including the use of bias-response teams created to investigate complaints about and impose penalties on protected speech.

Spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the UI "has not received official notice of this litigation, but we will review any filings and respond appropriately." She also said the UI is "deeply committed to the core values of free speech and free expression."

The litigation seeks court findings that the UI's "prior restraint on speech," its use of bias-response teams and its practice of issuing "no contact" orders violate the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First and 14th Amendments.

It also seeks a temporary injunction barring the UI from engaging in these practices while the lawsuit is pending and a permanent injunction barring them in the future.

The lawsuit also seeks "reasonable costs and expenses, including attorney's fees."

Speech First President Nicole Neily, a UI graduate, said she was "disappointed" to learn about alleged violations of student free-speech rights and decided it was necessary to take action.

"This is a real problem. I'm embarrassed as an alum to see this taking place," she said.

After Speech First sued the University of Michigan, it adopted policy changes that it argued made the lawsuit moot.

A trial judge agreed, and that judge's decision is now on appeal before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit against Texas, which was filed late last year, is pending.

Most of the speech-related complaints cited in the lawsuit come from UI students who complain that the UI uses the bias-response-team tactic to punish students who express support for Chief Illiniwek, enforcement of U.S. immigration laws and President Donald Trump.

But one came from an atheist student who challenged those who embrace religion and a male student who complained on Facebook that "women are automatically admitted into engineering programs."

The lawsuit asserts that the UI's policy barring the posting of leaflets or handbills about "candidates for non-campus elections" without "prior approval" is "paradigmatic prior restraint that violates the First Amendment."

It also contends that its prohibition on "bias motivated" speech and conduct is unreasonably broad, and, as a consequence, "chills free speech."

It said the UI's "no-contact directives" are also unconstitutionally overbroad.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the usual defendants, President Timothy Killeen and Chancellor Robert Jones.

Also named are the individual members of the UI's "Bias Assessment and Response Team."

The lawsuit alleges that students who run afoul of UI speech rules can be subjected to a wide variety of punishments including "mandated service to the community," "restitution," "letters of apology" and "restrictions from activities on campus."

As a consequence of these rules, the lawsuit alleges, "speech that is fully protected by the First Amendment often becomes subject to investigation by bias-response teams."

One subject that is routinely targeted for punishment, the lawsuit said, is Chief Illiniwek, the onetime UI symbol that has support among students and alumni.

One surprising subject of controversy is support for Israel.

Students who are "anti-Israel frequently threaten to report students who are members of pro-Israel student organizations" to the bias teams.

The lawsuit alleges that practice "discourages many students from joining pro-Israel student organizations and otherwise expressing support for Israel."

One student was the subject of a no-contact "probationary" order for writing an article about a history faculty member who was involved in dispute at a public protest.

The student, Andrew Minik, was told that if he wanted the "situation to improve" he should "not write about (the faculty member) anymore."

Like many campuses, the UI is often a scene of political controversies and the speech issue has been raised from time to time.

UI leaders have repeatedly asserted their commitment to maintaining an open environment for all points of view to be heard.

That, however, generally relates to matters of formal political discourse.

The lawsuit targets UI rules as they relate to how its students deal with each other.

Speech First is identified as the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Its president said it's suing on behalf of UI students who are members of the organization.

\Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.