Metro-East News

SIUE settles lawsuit that says limiting free speech to one part of campus is illegal

SIUE chancellor Randy Pembrook is one of the university officials named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
SIUE chancellor Randy Pembrook is one of the university officials named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

A lawsuit alleging that Southern Illinois University Edwardsville violated students’ First Amendment rights by limiting free speech to a small area of campus was settled in favor of students.

The Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit in October 2017 representing the College Republicans at SIUE. The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of a policy that restricted student expression to a 905-square-foot zone around a rock in Stratton Quadrangle.

“Of all places, public colleges and universities are supposed to be laboratories for democracy. Administrators should encourage, not silo or stifle, free expression,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said in a statement. “We commend the university for agreeing to adopt policies that ensure every student will be able to speak freely and peacefully, regardless of their political viewpoint and without fear of being punished.”

The lawsuit alleged that SIUE’s Speech Zone Policy prohibited students from speaking outside of the speech zone area in Stratton Quadrangle, according to AFD’s statement. Under the school’s speech policies, “university officials had unlimited discretion to review content and viewpoint in a student organization’s permit request to determine whether the proposed speech was ‘controversial in nature.’ Administrators could deny permits for speech deemed controversial or grant approval only if students agreed to pay burdensome security fees, according to the lawsuit.

But SIUE spokesperson Doug McIlhagga said there were misconceptions from the get-go about the school’s policy. Students were never confined to a free speech zone, and permission was never required to speak elsewhere on campus, he said in a statement.

The university settled and agreed to pay the attorney fees in order to save the university the greater cost of prolonged litigation, he said.

“SIUE has always supported the notion that every student should be able to speak freely and peacefully, regardless of their political viewpoint and without fear of being punished,” McIlhagga said in the statement. “The University is constantly reviewing and modifying its policies and procedures, and would have been happy to talk with the College Republicans, the Alliance Defending Freedom, or others, had they brought their concerns to our attention prior to filing the lawsuit.”

The university will also pay $10,000 in attorney’s fees — but not damages, as AFD said in its statement, because there were no damages, McIlhagga said.

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