2 Illinois universities among worst in the nation for free speech

Jeffrey Schwab

Jeffrey Schwab is a senior attorney with the Liberty Justice Center.

Jeffrey Schwab
March 6, 2015

2 Illinois universities among worst in the nation for free speech

Universities are supposed to be safe havens for controversial ideas, but at least 10 Illinois universities have one or more policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chicago State University placed second and fourth, respectively, in the “10 worst colleges for free speech,” as ranked by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.

Chicago State University, or CSU, made the list for multiple attacks on the free-speech rights of faculty and students. The school attempted to shut down a blog critical of the CSU administration to which two CSU professors contributed. CSU even brought disciplinary charges against these two professors for “cyberbullying.” With the help of FIRE, which fights to protect free-speech rights on college campuses, these two professors brought a federal lawsuit to vindicate their free speech rights and to stop CSU’s attempt at censorship.

Additionally, two CSU students brought a lawsuit alleging that the administration prevented them from holding student-government positions by invalidating the election results in retaliation for speaking out about alleged corrupt practices of several powerful and politically connected members of the administration. Finally, a former CSU employee won a $3 million verdict after CSU fired him in 2010 in retaliation for reporting misconduct by top university officials, including CSU President Wayne Watson.

The University of Illinois made the list because it rescinded a job offer to Professor Steven Salaitar due to controversial, anti-Israel tweets made on his personal Twitter account. The professor has since filed a lawsuit against the university. U. of I. justified its action by stating that it could not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” The university attempted to defend its record on free speech by stating that there have been an array of opinions and debates on campus about the decision to rescind the professor’s offer.

Under the First Amendment, however, the university may not prohibit certain speech simply because some individuals could find it disrespectful to their own views, nor may the university seek to justify the prohibition of some speech by pointing out that other speech is allowed.

Unfortunately, these two schools are not the only campuses on which free speech is threatened. FIRE has flagged at least 10 Illinois universities for having one or more policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. Northern Illinois University also came under scrutiny last year for making access to websites deemed “unethical” by the university a violation of its Internet-use policy. And earlier this year, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against Waubonsee Community College for prohibiting individuals from handing out flyers because the flyers contained a controversial viewpoint regarding homosexuality. As the judge in that case noted, “provocative speech is entitled to the same protection as speech promoting popular notions.”

Universities are supposed to be safe places for controversial ideas. Ideally, students go to a university to be exposed to a wide variety of ideas, which allow them to explore, evaluate and defend their own views. Restricting and punishing students and faculty for their expression, even if controversial, harms both speakers with such views – because they are forced to withhold making such views public – and listeners themselves, because they lose the opportunity to engage and debate people with differing views.

Fortunately, public universities are bound by the First Amendment, which protects student and faculty speech and expression, however controversial or unpopular. Illinois taxpayers should demand that public universities in Illinois respect student and faculty expression, and stop trying to suppress speech that is critical or controversial.

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