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Permission to Speak Freely

Locked doors and a lawsuit over First Amendment rights at Northeastern Illinois University

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I didn't think I'd need to hang a press badge around my neck last week when I headed to a faculty senate meeting at Northeastern Illinois University, about a proposed policy that would restrict free speech on campus. I just threw a pen and notebook in a bag and caught a ride to the northwest-side campus, where I'd been a student myself back in the late 1960s—when free speech was erupting all over and federal agents were infiltrating student clubs.

My mistake. After I took a seat at the long table, signed in, and, when asked, identified myself as press, I was met with fish eyes all around, then a request for proof. "For all we know, you could be from the president's office," one of the professors said.

Before I could offer my editor's phone number, someone else motioned for a closed executive session and I was ousted, along with the only other observer, NEIU faculty member Russell Benjamin. Chitchat in the few unguarded moments before they ushered us out and locked the door behind us made it clear that members of the faculty senate considered the proposed policy stifling—they just didn't want their discussion of a potential threat to free speech to be open and reported.

It was a striking indication of the lines that have been drawn at NEIU, where some of the school's unionized faculty are increasingly concerned about a top-down administration seeking a buttoned-down campus, and one professor is suing university officials over alleged retaliation after she spoke out in defense of minority rights and against the Iraq war.

Proposed by university president Sharon K. Hahs, the Policy Concerning Demonstrations on Campus, Distribution and Display of Visual Communications and Solicitation of Signatures on Campus—dubbed DDS for short—was submitted last month to the faculty senate and three other campus groups representing students and employees, with a request that they buy in. Opening with a statement that posits an opposition between "constitutionally guaranteed liberties" and "the duty to educate," it requires an advance "reservation request" for any person or group planning to hold a demonstration, hand out flyers, display posters, or gather signatures on a petition. The request would have to be submitted no later than one week in advance for students and employees (two for everyone else), and include copies of any visual communications that would be used. Although there's an "exception" procedure for "spontaneous" demonstrations—involving on-the-spot approval by a representative of the dean's office—they'd clearly be discouraged.

These activities would also be limited to specific locations and hours, in effect creating free speech zones within the campus. Although NEIU is a commuter school, with many students attending evening classes, no demonstrations would be allowed inside university buildings after 4:30 PM. Outdoor demonstrations would have to wrap up an hour before sunset. Demonstrators—defined as "one or more persons engaged in a public manifestation of a particular point of view"—would have to submit to mandatory supervision by the dean's office. Obscenity and excessive noise would be forbidden. Commenters around the senate table before my eviction speculated about the increase in administrative staffing for this labor-intensive control and costly legal challenges that might follow attempts to squelch constitutionally protected speech.

Benjamin, an associate professor of political science, says he showed up for the meeting because he considers the proposed policy "very disturbing" and was hoping the senate and the other groups would refuse to endorse it. "I think people should have free speech everywhere," he says. "Two years ago I received a letter announcing that I was head of a committee to deal with the issue of free speech zones on this campus. I had not been consulted about that, and I made sure they knew that I would not serve on such a committee. I don't believe that a university should have zones of free speech, or that people should be required to have prior approval for buttons, T-shirts, and signs." All of America is a free speech zone, Benjamin adds. As for the meeting we were booted from: "Both the proposed policy and the debates on it should be public."

Meanwhile, Loretta Capeheart, a tenured member of the justice studies department, is suing President Hahs and two other university officials, charging that they infringed on her right of free speech and retaliated against her after she criticized the university's record on recruiting and retaining Latino students and faculty, voiced antiwar sentiments, and found fault with the university for arresting students peacefully protesting a CIA recruitment event at a college job fair. According to Capeheart's suit, university officials blocked her appointment as chair of her department, even though department members had elected her to that position, and denied her several other appointments and honors. It also alleges that Melvin Terrell, NEIU's vice president of student affairs, defamed her, falsely asserting at a meeting of the Faculty Council on Student Affairs that she was "a subject of interest for the police" and that a student had filed "stalking" charges against her.

The suit calls for damages of at least $500,000, but Capeheart's attorney, Thomas Rosenwein, says the most important thing is the injunction to prevent the "ongoing violation of her rights to free speech."

NEIU is seeking dismissal of the suit, arguing that it's not a free speech issue but an employment matter.

Rosenwein sees a connection between the DDS policy and his client's case. "One of the provisions seems to be directly related to Loretta, because it makes the gym, where the job fair is held, off limits for leafleting." Rosenwein says it looks to him like the proposed policy is partly "designed to stop students from protesting CIA recruiting on campus." He thinks it might have been inspired by measures adopted by some municipalities in the wake of 9/11: it smacks more of a frightened small town than the hotbed of open inquiry that a university's supposed to be.

The term ended last week; at press time there was concern that the proposed policy could be put into effect without faculty endorsement, when few people are on campus to notice. An NEIU spokesperson emphasized that the policy is only a proposal at this point.v

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