Federal Court Finds University of IL Violated Rights of Students and Faculty in Mascot Debate

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
May 28, 2002 12:00 am

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CHICAGO–A federal court today ruled that University of Illinois officials violated the free speech rights of students and faculty when they required “”pre-clearance”” for any statements about the school’s controversial use of Native American Chief Illiniwek as a mascot.

The American Civil Liberties of Illinois, which brought the case on behalf of seven students and faculty members who were critical of the mascot, hailed the ruling as a decisive victory for the free speech rights of their clients.

“Today’s ruling is a vindication for our clients, for their free speech rights and the rights of all persons at the University of Illinois campus to express themselves on matters of public policy,” said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois.

“”The court today affirmed that faculty and students at the University have the right to address issues of public concern — including the controversial Chief Illiniwek issue — without being compelled to seek the prior permission of University officials,”” Grossman said, noting that the court specifically recognized that the Chancellor’s pre-clearance directive had a chilling effect on those who might speak out against the University’s policy of using the Illiniwek symbol at sporting events.

In his ruling today, Judge Michael Mihm of the U.S. District Court in Peoria also denied a motion seeking immunity from damages for former Chancellor Michael Aiken in the matter. This ruling means that the ACLU will be allowed to proceed to trial in July 2002 and to seek damages from the former Chancellor.

Today’s decision is the latest development in a lawsuit filed in March 2001 by the ACLU on behalf of seven faculty members and students at the Urbana-Champaign campus. Many of the plaintiffs are active in efforts to end the University’s use of the Illiniwek symbol, and had announced plans in February 2001 to contact prospective athletic recruits for the purpose of informing them about the ongoing controversy. The group made clear at that time that they would contact the prospective student athletes in order to inform the prospective recruits that many individuals and groups find the use of the Illiniwek symbol disrespectful.

After reports about such efforts circulated in the news media, the Chancellor issued a campus-wide directive (via e-mail) on March 2, 2001, stating that any contacts with prospective student athletes needed to be cleared in advance by personnel from the Athletic Department.

After a hearing in March 2001, Judge Mihm issued a temporary restraining order barring the University from enforcing the provisions of the pre-clearance directive. In June 2001, the Chancellor issued a second directive that appeared to withdraw the previous pre-clearance order.

In denying the motion to allow Chancellor Aiken “”qualified immunity,”” the court today ruled that the Chancellor will be forced to defend his actions at a trial this summer, a trial that will center on the specific damage claims of Cydney A. Crue, Brenda Farnell, Fred Hoxie, Stephen Kaufman and Philip Phillips.

Today’s ruling also makes special mention of the importance of protecting free speech in a University setting. Citing a 1977 case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the decision notes, “it is axiomatic that the First Amendment must flourish as much in the academic setting as anywhere else. To invoke censorship in an academic environment is hardly the recognition of a healthy democratic society.”

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