- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2019

A lawsuit accuses the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign of stifling free speech by “weaponizing” anti-bias measures against students who have attended pro-Israel rallies, advocated for the reinstatement of an American Indian school mascot and supported a pro-Trump, anti-immigration demonstration on campus.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois by the advocacy group Speech First, which is based in Virginia. It names university President Timothy Kileen, the Board of Trustees, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other school officials as defendants.

“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,” said Speech First President Nicole Neily.

The university said it had not yet received notification of the lawsuit.

“The University of Illinois is deeply committed to the core values of free speech and free expression and to the open exchange of competing ideas and perspectives,” a spokesman said in an email.

The lawsuit seeks injunctions to stop university officials from:

⦁ Prohibiting the distribution of noncampus campaign leaflets without prior approval.

⦁ Requiring Bias Assessment Response Teams (BARTs) to investigate claims of harmful language or action on campus.

⦁ Issuing “no-contact” directives against students who have been reported as offenders.

“[T]he University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its officials have created a series of rules and regulations — along with an elaborate investigative and enforcement regime — designed to restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech concerning political and social issues,” states the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of four anonymous students.

The suit accuses the university of surveillance after students complained about certain incidents. One student was cited for bias after posting a Facebook meme suggesting that any female candidate to the engineering program would be admitted. Another was cited for hanging a Confederate flag out a window.

In addition, the BART office placed a permanent mark on the academic record of a student who is a member of Speech First and had been reported to the office for having attended a pro-Israel rally, the suit states.

Under the BART system, students lodge anonymous complains against other students or staff via computer, the suit says. Complaints then are reviewed by a committee comprising officials in a student conflict office.

“The BART thus is, quite literally, a speech police,” the suit states.

Penalties range from reprimand to “educational conversations” to dismissal. None of the students for whom the lawsuit was filed has been reprimanded, but they fear punishment for their viewpoints and say their speech has been chilled.

Critics increasingly have accused colleges of overreach in their attempts to rout out systemic bias on campus. In March, the White House issued an executive order to cancel funding for universities that “create environments that stifle competing perspectives.”

In 2016, the University of Northern Colorado sidelined its bias response team, citing “free speech and academic freedom.” The University of Iowa also scrapped plans to create a BART system because of a “high failure rate.”

Last summer, three students sued the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a graduate student over a scuffle at an anti-Trump rally in 2016. The school filed a “no contact” directive against student Andrew Minik, who reported on the incident in a campus publication, after graduate student Tariq Khan reported Mr. Minik to BART.

Mr. Minik and fellow students Blair Nelson and Joel Valdez later filed a civil action against the university and Mr. Khan, who had grabbed Mr. Valdez’s phone at the rally and threw it. Police initially charged Mr. Khan with a misdemeanor, which later was dismissed after he completed a diversion program. That lawsuit is proceeding in federal court.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide