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Will Chief Illiniwek Dance Again?

Stunning revelations regarding the University of Illinois administration's attempts to stifle a student group's free speech rights.

by
Robert Shibley

Bio

February 1, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Of course, in the next paragraph, we find out that stopping a particular organization is precisely what they’re trying to do: “I think we’ve done a good job at pushing the program to a time slot that will not be as visible or popular for people to attend. I am hoping that eventually, these events won’t be popular enough to support.” She concludes, “If we’re forced to go forward with this event, Anna [Gonzalez] will most likely have a list of recommendations to help us manage it. Let me know if there’s anything more I can do.” To Herman’s minimal credit, he responded that “the issue is ultimately free speech as long as theyare [sic] an RSO.” He maintained, however, that it “seems a bad idea” for the event to take place.

But UI administrators weren’t done with their attempts to derail the event. Indeed, the following day, Romano wrote Herman again, saying in part, “I’m just trying to think of a reason to deny them access to the hall on Oct. 2. At this point they know there’s nothing scheduled.” After further discussion, this idea died as well. But after an e-mail from Emeritus Professor Stephen Kaufman demanding that the university rescind approval for the event, Edward Slazinik, director of the Illini Union, sent a September 15 e-mail noting that the event had not yet been officially registered.

An e-mail response from Anna Gonzalez came the following day, asking, “Since they have not registered the event for this year, can the event be pulled? Is there a time limit for that — say, they have to register an event 1 week prior?” However, SFCI’s event dodged this final bullet, as Slazinik responds that such an effort “would only accomplish making the university look foolish.”

The efforts to actually stop the SFCI event appear to have ended here — but the attempts to silence expression about the Illiniwek mascot continued. Professor Robert Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at UI, wrote to Romano to complain about the fact that the SFCI event was being promoted on the billboard outside the venue where it was to take place, asking, “Can ROs that rent the hall say anything they want on the billboard, including racial stereotyping?” Romano responded, “I share your feeling about the billboard,” but she said that there was nothing she could do because it was “part of the package.”

Warrior also demanded that the university take down posters in the student union that he found to have a “genocidal” message. The posters had a picture of Illinois fans on it and read: “Never seen a real Indian? GOOD! Because obviously we haven’t either. The ‘Next Dance’ — Because even though ignorance may not be bliss, it sure is fun!” When informed that administrators would look into posting rules to see if the posters could be removed (that e-mail is missing from the FOIA materials), Warrior wrote to Gonzalez on September 29 that he was taking his ball and going home: “I don’t care about posting rules. Hate escalates. It’s a fact. … I am no longer willing to participate on diversity committees like the one I am on that you chair, initiatives, or events.”

Gonzalez was understandably insulted, saying in an e-mail to Romano that “we have been the ones who are responsive and working on this.” In a later e-mail, though, Warrior said that he had determined that the poster he objected to “came from a segment of the protest organizing group who saw it as social commentary,” but that he thought the “genocidal reference in It [sic] muddles whatever message it is conveying.” In other words, the poster agreed with his own position — and he didn’t even understand that.

Watching administrators and professors flailing madly in their attempts to reconcile the demands of political correctness with the demands of the Constitution and common sense is undeniably amusing. Yet it also goes a long way towards proving what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and other defenders of civil liberty on campus often say: if a rule or principle can be abused or ignored to censor dissenting speech, it will be.

At the University of Illinois, public servants with the exalted ranks of chancellor, vice chancellor, and associate vice chancellor spent hours of effort brainstorming and scheming to stop, move, or otherwise disrupt a student organization’s event through multiple means. How would these same people react if Illinois politicians went to the same lengths to interfere with university events? A high-ranking professor and department director demanded that the university ignore the Constitution and its own policy to prevent students from seeing a “genocidal” poster the meaning of which he doesn’t even understand. How would he react if the police showed the same lack of respect for his Sixth Amendment rights (to a trial by jury, for instance) that he shows for his students’ rights?

First Amendment rights? Parents and students at every university in America should take a close look under the rock turned over by this FOIA request and ask themselves: how much of this goes on at my alma mater?

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Robert Shibley is the vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, PA.
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