guest view Academic freedom under fire at NEIU
By Steve macek Illinois Editorial Forum September 20, 2012 10:56PM
Updated: October 22, 2012 6:04AM
It has long been known that college and university faculty must be free to pursue research, teach classes and engage in vigorous debate about matters of both public and academic concern without fear of reprisal. Institutions of higher education that stifle dissent and free speech, especially the free speech of their own faculty, are unlikely to produce graduates with open, critical minds or foster breakthroughs in the search for new knowledge. That’s why what happened to Professor Loretta Capeheart of North Eastern Illinois University is so disturbing.
Capeheart has taught justice studies at NEIU for more than 10 years. She has also been a vocal participant in academic governance at her institution, a leader in her faculty union and a mentor to student anti-war activists.
Not one to hold her tongue, when a group of Latino state legislators visited her school in September 2006, Capeheart told them the school needed to do more to recruit qualified Latino faculty. A few months later, when members of a student club she advises were arrested in an anti-CIA demonstration on campus, she spoke up on their behalf and publicly questioned the supervisor of campus security about NEIU’s handling of the incident.
Rather than accept Capeheart’s criticisms as part of an open give-and-take, the NEIU administration chose to punish her.
At a faculty meeting in which arrest of student protestors was discussed, NEIU Vice President Melvin Terrell attacked Capeheart, falsely claiming that a student had filed stalking charges against her. The slanderous allegations were completely unfounded.
The administration subsequently denied her a merit raise and faculty excellence award for which she had been recommended. Even more troubling, when Capeheart’s colleagues elected her to serve as department chair, the administration refused to let her assume the position, ultimately putting her department into receivership.
Capeheart initially chose to combat this pattern of abuse via the NEIU’s internal grievance procedure. Finally, she sued the school’s administration in federal court for defamation of character (the bogus stalking claim) and for retaliating against her for speech protected by the First Amendment.
NEIU’s lawyers responded to the lawsuit by invoking the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti vs. Ceballos to claim that Capeheart’s criticisms of the university administration weren’t covered by the First Amendment. In Garcetti, the court ruled that expression by public employees pursuant to official duties is unprotected by constitutional free speech rights. Even though the original Garcetti decision explicitly exempted professors at public universities, the federal district court for Northern Illinois accepted NEIU’s reasoning and threw out Capeheart’s lawsuit on the grounds that the speech that got her into trouble was part of her official responsibilities as a member of faculty.
The district court’s ruling potentially imperils the academic freedom of faculty at all colleges and universities. As the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) put it, “The message of the district court’s ruling is chilling and clear: University administrators need not tolerate outspoken faculty dissent on matters of broad public concern.”
After the loss in district court, Capeheart and her lawyers took the case to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals — despite the fact that she is $100,000 in debt and recently suffered a setback in a parallel lawsuit that could make her liable for a substantial portion of NEIU’s legal bills.
Capeheart and her supporters have vowed to fight on, gathering signatures, collecting donations for her legal fund and raising awareness about the danger posed to academic freedom by court rulings in her case. The AAUP and the faculty union at Rutgers University have both contributed money for the appeal. Faculty at Harper College, the University of Texas at Austin, and Chicago’s city colleges have passed resolutions of support. These groups understand that if NEIU is allowed to deprive Loretta Capeheart her First Amendment rights, the rights of all faculty will be diminished.
Steve Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College. The column was provided by the Illinois Editorial Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization.
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