Federal Court Rules that University of Illinois Violated Free Speech Rights in Mascot Controversy

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
April 5, 2001 12:00 am

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PEORIA, IL–A federal judge here ruled today that the University of Illinois violated the free speech rights of students and faculty when it attempted to block their statements about the school’s controversial use of Native American Chief Illiniwek as a mascot.

The bench ruling by United States District Court Judge Michael Mihm came two weeks after the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a lawsuit on behalf of the students and faculty members. The Judge said he will enter his formal ruling tomorrow morning.

“”The order reinforces the basic notion that students, staff and faculty at the University retain the right to speak out on issues of public concern without fear of retribution from University officials,”” said ACLU of Illinois Legal Director Harvey Grossman.

The controversy began in late February, when a coalition of students and faculty opposed to the continued use of Chief Illiniwek as a school mascot announced their intention to contact prospective athletic recruits for the purpose of informing them about the dispute.

Immediately following the February announcement, Chancellor Michael Aiken issued a campus-wide directive stating that any contacts with prospective student athletes needed to be cleared by personnel from the Athletic Department.

In explaining his decision, Judge Mihm ruled that the pre-clearance requirement was an overbroad, standardless prior restraint on speech which granted undue discretion to University officials to determine what speech would be allowed and, further, that the restraint acted to chill the speech of both faculty and students and eliminates their right to engage in anonymous speech.

Contrary to the University’s assertions, the Judge stated that speech on matters of public concern by persons who do not represent the University’s athletic interest is not intended to be covered by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regulations governing the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.

University officials proved unable to cite specific NCAA rules supporting their position in regards to contacts of high schools students by students or faculty to discuss non-athletic matters.

“In the final analysis, it was clear that the directive issued by the Chancellor was designed to limit faculty members and students from further discussion of the Chief Illiniwek issue with prospective student athletes, and that the NCAA rules were utilized as a shield for this limitation,” said Grossman. “This is a classic, content-based limitation on speech.”

The Decision in this case is online at http://www.ilcd.uscourts.gov/

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