On Thursday morning, the nonprofit membership association Speech First filed a powerful lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, challenging four blatantly anti-speech policies that penalize students for political speech and prevent them from speaking. The lawsuit defends four members whose speech is allegedly suppressed by the policies.
“Through the creation and active enforcement of its Bias Assessment Response Team [BART], University Housing Bias Protocol, the No Contact Directive, and the prior approval requirement for flyers related to non-campus elections, administrators at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have become the arbiters of what kinds of speech are – and are not – welcome on campus,” Speech First President Nicole Neily said in a statement. “As a public university, UIUC is bound to uphold the First Amendment, and these policies violate both the spirit and the letter of the law.”
“On a regular basis, The University of Illinois sends a clear message to students who wish to engage in political and religious speech: there are some views that are welcome, and others that are not. Students deserve to be able to express themselves and voice their opinions without fear of investigation or punishment – which is why these policies must be reformed,” she added.
The lawsuit, Speech First v. Killeen et. al, brings four counts against the university. It tells the stories of four anonymous Speech First members who have been scared into silence by these policies.
First, the university’s policy on literature involving “non-campus elections” violates the First Amendment by imposing a “prior restraint on speech.” According to university rules, no individual can “post and distribute leaflets, handbills, and any other types of materials” about “candidates for non-campus elections” without “prior approval” from the university. The university is not clear as to how early a student must submit fliers, nor as to what standards will be applied.
“Political speech, that’s what the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment for,” Neily told PJ Media in an interview. “You can’t say with a straight face that the college has a legitimate interest in this.” She envisioned herself as a student, saying, “I don’t want those people determining the wording on my pro-Trump flier.”
The lawsuit brings two charges regarding “bias-motivated incidents,” which the university defines as an “action or expression” that is “motivated, at least in part, by prejudice against or hostility toward a person (or group) because of that person’s (or group’s) actual or perceived age, disability/ability status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, national origin, race, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, etc.” This definition is “unconstitutionally overbroad” because it encompasses speech protected under the First Amendment.
The bias-motivated incidents policy allegedly violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being “void for vagueness.” The “University has offered no guidance about the meaning of that term or how students can avoid committing a violation. The absence of a clear standard creates a serious risk that this prohibition will be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner, or will be used to target speech based on the viewpoint expressed.”
Finally, the university issues “No Contact Directives” which prohibit a student “from having any ‘oral, written, or third party communication’ with the complaining party; prohibits the student from taking ‘deliberate nonverbal acts’ that are ‘intended to provoke’ the complaining party; and warns students that they must ‘leave the vicinity if they encounter one of the other parties.'” These directives have no end date unless the disciplinary officer specifies one, and the punishment for violating a No Contact Directive is “dismissal from the university.”
In November 2017, graduate student Tariq Khan got in a shouting match with two students at an “anti-Trump” rally and broke a student’s phone. Another student, Andrew Minik, published a video of the incident and wrote an article about it for Campus Reform, even though he was not present at the event.
Shortly after the article was published, Khan asked the university for a No Contact Directive against Minik, and the university obliged.
Students who oppose Israel have frequently threatened to report students who are members of pro-Israel student groups to the bias response team.
In 2007, the university retired its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Students have called for the chief’s return, arguing that the mascot was not offensive to Native Americans but actually honored Native Americans. According to the lawsuit, “The BART frequently investigates these protestors. For example, the BART has investigated a student who dressed as Chief Illiniwek and marched in the homecoming parade; a student who posted a picture of Chief Illiniwek on the student’s Facebook page; a student who posted a meme about Chief Illiniwek in a Facebook group; and students who planned a ‘Meeting with the Chief’ program in support of bringing back the Chief.”
In her interview with PJ Media, Neily noted that the bias response teams have no limitations on reporting. In other words, if a student says something another student finds offensive, even if they are not on campus or if the student merely posts the statement on social media, that student can still be punished by the university.
“If you can get in trouble for pretty much anything, anywhere on the globe, at any time, out of an abundance of caution students won’t speak,” Neily said. “So much for free inquiry and intellectual discourse on a college campus. You’re using the disciplinary apparatus of the school to shut up your opponents, which is crazy.”
The lawsuit asks the court to issue “declaratory judgments” against the flier policy, the bias-motivated incidents policies, and the No Contact Directive policy. The lawsuit also seeks permanent injunctions against these policies as well as a preliminary injunction granting relief and the reasonable costs and expenses to which Speech First and its members are entitled.
This important lawsuit fights back against blatantly anti-speech policies that prevent open dialogue and the true purpose of a university. The University of Illinois should end these policies, or the court should side with Speech First in overturning these horrific policies.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.