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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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The University of Illinois is among the latest universities sued for violating students’ free-speech rights to settle the litigation by changing or clarifying its policies.

Like the universities of Texas and Michigan, the UI agreed, among others things, to defang its bias-response teams that were created to identify and punish those accused of making unacceptable remarks, whatever they were.

The civil-rights lawsuit was filed by Speech First against the UI in 2019 at the federal courthouse in Urbana. Ironically, the UI agreed to settle the case rather than wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if it would review it.

Both U.S. Judge Colin Bruce and justices on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled against Speech First on the grounds that the UI students they represented had no standing to file a lawsuit.

However, other federal circuits involved in similar lawsuits filed by Speech First have ruled that students represented by Speech First do have standing.

The Supreme Court often decides to review cases when appeals courts in separate circuits have reached conflicting decisions on the same legal questions.

The settlement, however, foreclosed the possibility of the UI being forced to litigate the issue before the nation’s highest court.

In exchange for Speech First’s decision to dismiss its lawsuit, the settlement states the UI agrees to eliminate and not later reinstate a rule requiring “prior approval” for posting and distributing promotional materials involving candidates for non-campus elections.

With respect to the campus bias-response teams, the UI acknowledged that two response units — Bias Assessment Response Team and Bias Incident Protocol — have no authority to require a student to meet with their members and no authority to impose any punishment on a student “about bias-motivated incidents.” The UI also agreed that students will “not be disciplined in any way” if they decline to speak with either group.

Finally, the UI agreed to modify rules governing “no contact” orders it issues to students.

This provision stemmed from an order by a UI official to a student not to write about or have any contact with a history graduate student who engaged in campus protests.

The settlement agreement states that “with respect to the (UI’s no-contact) procedures, a student’s bias-motivated speech can justify the imposition of a (no-contact) order only when the disciplinary officer determines that the speech is accompanied by allegations of an actual or foreseeable student-code violation, such as sexual harassment or stalking.”

While Speech First agreed to dismiss its lawsuit against the UI, it reserved “all rights to file a new lawsuit” if the UI should renege on the terms of the settlement.

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said it is “pleased” the matter has been resolved but declined to respond to questions about the specifics of the settlement.

UI graduate Nicole Neilly, president of Speech First, said she, too, is pleased with the settlement but “really discouraged” because so many colleges and universities have adopted or are adopting policies hostile to allowing a free exchange of views on campus.

“We’ll be filing our next lawsuit next week,” she said, identifying her organization’s target as a Florida-based institution.

Neilly said she expects the atmosphere on campuses to get worse because “with the change in administrations (from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden), some will be emboldened to beef up their tattle-tale policies.”

Neilly reference to “tattle-tale policies” relates to campus-speech issues in which students who are angered by statements they do not agree with are encouraged to file speech-related complaints to bias-response teams against fellow students.

Among the issues that pit students against each other on campus are disputes related to Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East and affirmative action. On the UI campus, disagreements about retired symbol Chief Illiniwek also cause angst.

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

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