Chicago State president allegedly attempted to silence professor with false sexual-harassment claims
Chicago State University was among the 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2014. With the latest development in this case, it appears CSU is making a strong bid to hold that distinction in 2015 as well.
Chicago State University President Wayne Watson attempted to pressure a former administrator, LaShondra Peebles, to file false sexual harassment claims against an outspoken professor to help the college try to silence him, according to a court-filed statement from Peebles.
Last year, two CSU professors brought a federal lawsuit alleging that Watson and the university administration violated their free-speech rights by taking a series of actions aimed at shutting down a blog that criticized Watson and the administration, “CSU Faculty Voice,” to which the professors contributed. According to Peebles, Watson was determined to shut down the blog and silence the professors’ criticism of him and his administration.
CSU initially demanded the professors take down the blog by wrongly claiming that it infringed on CSU’s trademark. When that intimidation effort failed, the university adopted a sweeping “cyberbullying” policy and brought charges against the professors for violating that policy. Peebles stated in her court-filed declaration that the policy was expressly designed to silence contributors to the blog.
It appears Watson was so determined to shut down the blog that he went as far as attempting to have Peebles file false allegations of sexual harassment against one of the professors.
Watson and CSU’s efforts to silence these professors’ speech on their blog was one reason the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, listed Chicago State University on their 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2014. With the latest development in this case, it appears CSU is making a strong bid to hold that distinction in 2015 as well.
Peebles was fired on June 2, 2014. She alleges she was fired in part for refusing to file the bogus sexual-harassment charge. She filed a lawsuit against Watson and the Chicago State Board of Trustees for wrongful termination under Illinois’ State Officials and Employees Ethics Act on Feb. 18, 2015.
During his tenure, allegations involving Watson and his administration’s attempt to stifle speech critical of him and the administration have been prevalent. Soon after becoming CSU president, author and poet Haki Madhubuti resigned, complaining that Watson demoted him for speaking out against the search process that resulted in Watson’s hiring.
In 2010, a former CSU employee alleged that the university fired him in retaliation for reporting misconduct by top university officials, including Watson. He won a $3 million verdict. Last year, two CSU students brought a lawsuit alleging that in retaliation for speaking out about alleged corrupt practices of several powerful and politically connected members of the administration, the administration prevented them from holding student-government positions by invalidating the election results. Watson was named as a defendant in that lawsuit.
Free speech is not a luxury at public universities. Public universities are bound by the First Amendment and may not infringe upon the free-speech rights of students, professors, employees or members of the public.
In February, Watson announced he would retire in 2016 when his contract expires. In the search for the next university president, the CSU Board of Trustees should ensure that any candidate is committed to the principles of free speech and will not attempt to curtail speech by any student, professor or school employee, particularly speech critical of the president, the administration or the university.