Chicago State University agreed this week to settle a First Amendment lawsuit. The decision follows several years and millions of dollars spent by the university fighting and losing other free speech cases.
Beginning in 2009, Professors Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz ran a blog called the "CSU Faculty Voice," which was critical of former CSU President Wayne Watson and his administration. "Faculty members who contributed posts lambasted a culture of cronyism and questioned ballooning administrative salaries and perks even as enrollment and graduation rates plummeted," the Chicago Tribune reported. The university drew criticism for financial mismanagement and unstable leadership, as the university went through five presidents in four years.
After learning of the blog at a faculty meeting in November 2013, CSU's general counsel and vice president Patrick Cage wrote to insist they take it down. The letter accused the two of improperly using the university's "trade names and marks" and of failing to meet university standards of "civility and professionalism." The letter demanded the two "provide us with written confirmation that you have complied with the request no later than November 15, 2013, in order to avoid legal action." The professors described the letter's typos, tone and legal merit as "baffling."
In July 2014, Bionaz and Beverly sued CSU for threatening frivolous legal action against them. In their lawsuit, they alleged the university was waging a poltroonish, "ongoing campaign to silence" them. Following the university's initial pushback to the blog, it instituted a cyberbullying policy governing online speech as "another tool for restricting Plaintiffs' speech."
In March 2015, a former vice president of the university wrote in a sworn statement that Watson, while he was president, had pressured her to falsely accuse one of the professors of sexual harassment. She alleged Watson fired her after she refused to comply.
The professors continued posting to the blog while waiting for an outcome to the case.
Now, the university has agreed to settle the suit. According to a copy of the agreement provided by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the university agreed to change its policies regulating the speech of faculty and to pay a total of $650,000 to settle the case.
"This case should remind administrators of state universities they are not a law unto themselves and must obey constitutional commands," Beverly and Bionaz's attorney said after the decision. "Universities can only serve as a true marketplace of ideas when preserving and protecting the First Amendment is a core part of their mission."
The settlement is the latest failure by CSU to regulate or restrict speech. FIRE reports:
In March 2014, FIRE implored CSU to back off its demands to censor the professors’ blog to "spare CSU the embarrassment and cost of yet another loss in its repeated and ill-advised battles against the First Amendment." Just weeks earlier, a jury awarded $2.5 million to a former CSU attorney who faced retaliation for refusing to withhold public records. Before that, CSU was ordered to pay over $200,000 after retaliating against the student newspaper in response to articles critical of the university.
Though CSU may stand apart in its losing record, it is hardly the only university to attempt to tamp down free discourse. According to FIRE, more than 90 percent of surveyed universities maintain policies in contravention of the First Amendment.
In a final blog post to the CSU Faculty Voice, Bionaz expressed relief that the "mendacious" previous administration had finally capitulated. "After twice threatening the blog with legal action, after lying about the blog's violation of non-existent university trademarks, after lying about a variety of other matters, after ham-handed attempts by the Watson cabal to inveigle various administrators to file false sexual harassment charges, the university's feeble defense predictably failed to stop the lawsuit," he wrote.
He noted that the Illinois Attorney General's Office had suggested the parties settle by modifying two university policies and paying $60,000 to Bionaz and Beverly. Instead, the university president hired a private attorney. That decision and his refusal to concede immediately "resulted in this loss, the modification of the policies, and an estimated $1.5 million price tag. After all, it wasn't his money," Bionaz said. "So the university must once again pay the price for Wayne Watson's incompetence, his vindictiveness, his mendacity."
In closing, Bionaz expressed "optimism that the end of litigation might offer a fresh start to the new administration. "Hopefully," he said, "the settlement indicates that at least someone responsible for administering this school will actually put the university's interests first."