The Southern Poverty Law Center on Friday called on the University of Illinois to rid itself of "its stereotypical and demeaning mascot, Chief Illiniwek."
Brandon Wilson, head of the center's college outreach program, said the center's position was released in anticipation of a vote by the UI Board of Trustees in March on whether to retire the longstanding athletic symbol of the institution.
"If the members of the board vote to retain Chief Illiniwek as a mascot and symbol, it communicates to us support of a racially hostile environment," Wilson said.
The center has long been aware of, and opposed to, the chief, he said. In April 2000, the center's legal director sent a letter to the trustees charging that the chief violated provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"We have no intention of agitation in any community, but we are an organization committed to fighting hate and intolerance," Wilson said.
Thomas Hardy, spokesman for the UI, said the agenda for the March board meeting, to be held in Urbana, has not been set yet, but that Trustee Frances Carroll has indicated her desire to schedule a vote at that time.
The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Law Poverty Center adds another influential voice to the chorus of opposition to the chief. The center, whose first president was Julian Bond, is best known for using civil lawsuits to bankrupt several white supremacist organizations, including multimillion-dollar judgments against the United Klans of America and the Aryan Nations.
In October, the American Association of University Professors and the University of Illinois chapter of the organization filed a brief in a First Amendment lawsuit involving Chief Illiniwek because of concern over the UI's position on free speech rights of faculty members.
The national and local AAUP organizations filed an amicus, or "friend of the court," brief in Crue v. Aiken. The case arose from former UI Chancellor Michael Aiken's directive that any contacts with student athletes being recruited by the UI be cleared first through the UI's Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. The plaintiffs in the case, UI professors and a former graduate student, planned to contact recruits about the Chief Illiniwek controversy.
A federal district court judge found the plaintiffs were injured and awarded them each $1,000 in July 2002. The UI is appealing.
In its appellate brief, the UI argues that Aiken's e-mail directive was not a First Amendment violation because it applied to a narrow category of speech closely related to the UI's mission. It argued that contact with prospective student athletes would undermine its recruiting and therefore damage its income from its sports programs.
The AAUP action followed a recommendation in August from the National Collegiate Athletic Association's executive committee asking schools with American Indian mascots, nicknames or logos to complete a "self-analysis" to determine whether the mascot, nickname or logo can be viewed as offensive.
Hardy said the next six weeks will likely be filled with flurries of opinions on the issue from all sides.
"Members of the board of trustees respectfully hear the opinions of all parties and I'm sure will take the SPLC's point of view under consideration along with the others," Hardy said. "The rhetoric notwithstanding, the UI strictly adheres to all laws, including the Civil Rights Act, and enforces an anti-discrimination policy. The federal office for civil rights conducted an inquiry related to this issue and the university is in compliance with the law."
The Southern Poverty Law Center's declaration follows a lecture here in December by Morris Dees, co-founder of and chief trial lawyer for the center. The lecture was part of the UI's Brown v. Board of Education Jubilee Commemoration and was co-sponsored by the Illini Union Board, the chancellor's office and other units on campus.
You can reach Phil Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.