Seventh Circuit Considers Free Speech Debate around Chief Illiniwek

Apr 24, 2004

The controversy over Chief Illiniwek is taking center stage again.
Last month, more than 9,000 students at the University of Illinois voted in favor of keeping Chief Illiniwek, a mascot who resembles a Native American, at the school. Approximately 4,000 voted against continuing use of the Chief.
While that vote, which was part of a student advisory referendum, was interesting, another scheduled vote of a panel of judges from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could be much more significant.
That court is currently considering the University’s appeal of a district court’s decision from 2002, Crue v. Aiken, which ordered the university to pay seven plaintiffs $5,000 and their legal fees of approximately $300,000 for violating their right to free speech. The violation of the First Amendment allegedly occurred when then-chancellor Michael Aiken sent an e-mail in March of 2001 that discouraged the plaintiffs, most of which were faculty, from contacting prospective student athletes and raising issues about the university’s racial insensitivity associated with the use of Chief Illiniwek.
According to the student newspaper, the Daily Illini, the university has already spent $500,000 in legal fees defending itself in the legal action. Its current rationale for the appeal is the “negative impact” on the University administration’s decision-making ability, university spokesman Thomas Hardy told the paper. Elaborating, he added that the University is concerned that the decision creates a “chilling effect” because administrators cannot make good decisions for fear that a lawsuit would be filed. “(A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs) will establish a bad precedent for this university,” he said. “It will set a bad precedent for other universities.”
University Used NCAA Rules as a Hammer
In his original email, Aiken warned the faculty that the NCAA “regulates the timing, nature and frequency of contacts between any University employee and prospective athletes. No contacts are permitted with prospective student athletes, including high school and junior college students, by University students, employees or others associated with the University without express authorization of the Director of Athletics or his designee.”
Feeling besieged, the faculty contacted the ACLU and filed a lawsuit against the University on March 22, 2001, accusing the University of violating their First Amendment rights.
The plaintiffs won their case, but the university has continued with its appeals, drawing the concern of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which sent a letter on Oct. 21, 2003 to University President James Stukel. “A faculty member’s right to speak out on publicly controversial issues cannot be held hostage to the desires of influential donors, powerful business interests, important alumni, parents or trustees,” wrote Geneva Belford, president of the University chapter of AAUP.
The anti-Chief lobby has sought the support of the Board of Trustees, which could permanently retire the Chief. But as of press time, no such vote was scheduled.


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