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The Shutdown of WZRD at NEIU

By John K. Wilson

On June 29, 2012, the administration at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago shut down the student-run broadcast radio station, WZRD, and banned the student DJs from the airwaves. It was an act of censorship without due process that ignored NEIU's policies, violated the First Amendment, and broke a state law protecting freedom of college student media.

The June 29 decision shocked WZRD DJs (who call themselves "wizards"). Administrators complained about several issues, ranging from maintaining proper FCC records to spending outside donations without authorization. Their memo also claimed that students reported "being verbally attacked" to "express disagreement with the type of music the student DJ has played." According to the administration, this "has created a climate of fear, bullying, and intimidation" and violates the Student Conduct Code.

One student telling another student that their music sucks might be obnoxious, but it is certainly protected speech. To invoke the term "bullying" for musical discussions among adults is disturbing enough. To threaten penalties under the campus speech code is alarming. But to shut down an entire radio station because of such unproven allegations is inexcusable.

Worst of all, NEIU seems to have followed no due process procedures in shutting down WZRD. There was no hearing, no trial, no opportunity for WZRD to defend itself against the charges, for which NEIU offered no actual evidence. Instead, NEIU established a Radio Station Review Committee to recommend changes in WZRD, and a report from this committee is scheduled to be completed by November 9, along with a student government committee that will issue a report by November 2. However, it's unclear why a committee report (which has no judicial meaning) could resolve the question, nor does it appear that the administration is willing to end the four-month-long lockout of WZRD.

Normally, shutting down a student organization, especially a radio station such as WZRD, is an extraordinary punishment that requires overwhelming evidence of malfeasance. But NEIU shut down WZRD on the basis of unproven minor allegations and then appointed a committee to investigate whether the charges were true. Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, noted: "One way to tell you're being punished in violation of due process is that they invent the process after they tell you you're being punished." According to a report in the Chicago Reader, NEIU has already abandoned many of the charges because they were inaccurate.

NEIU does have some extraordinarily vague (and unconstitutional) rules that give the Student Activities Office the power to declare student groups "inactive" for a variety of reasons without proving any misconduct. And it is true that a student organization's charter at NEIU can be revoked once it is inactive for an entire fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30. Those dates may explain why NEIU suddenly issued this memo declaring WZRD "inactive" one day before that deadline. However, under NEIU's rules, the only penalty for an "inactive" organization is that it "shall not have access to Student Activities Fees or expend its budget." Nothing in NEIU's own rules allows it ban an "inactive" organization from continuing its activities, such as programming a radio station. So even if it were legitimate for NEIU to take over WZRD's financial activities (and it's not), nothing in NEIU's policies could justify taking over control of the programming and deciding what DJs are allowed on the air.

And none of these campus rules actually matter because state law supercedes any policies at public colleges. And unfortunately for the NEIU administration, in 2008 the state of Illinois enacted the College Campus Press Act. The law was motivated by the case of Hosty v. Carter, where Governors State University demanded prior review of the student newspaper. After the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that public colleges could censor student media, the Illinois legislature responded with this law prohibiting any administrator control over student-run media.

The College Campus Press Act is absolutely clear in its language and breathtakingly broad in its scope: "All campus media produced primarily by students at a State-sponsored institution of higher learning is a public forum for expression by the student journalists and editors at the particular institution. Campus media, whether campus-sponsored or noncampus-sponsored, is not subject to prior review by public officials of a State-sponsored institution of higher learning."

Shutting down student media is the most extreme form of prior review, and the clearest possible violation of the law which says that "Collegiate student editors of campus media are responsible for determining theā€¦content of campus media."

The Campus Press Act also explicitly covers "broadcast" student media, such as radio stations. Since all broadcast media are FCC-licensed, the fact that WZRD's FCC license is in the name of the university president has no relevance.

In response to my query about the College Campus Press Act, Frank Ross, Vice President for Student Affairs, wrote: "The University's review of the Radio Station and the Student Organization has been undertaken without regard to the 'content of campus media.' NEIU complies with the College Campus Press Act and unequivocally supports the responsibility of student editors of campus media to determine the news, opinions, feature content and advertising content of student-run campus media."

But it makes no difference under the law whether the administration is motivated by the content of campus media. They're not allowed to control student-run media under any circumstance. The notion that NEIU "unequivocally supports" students determining the content of media is completely incompatible with NEIU's explicit order shutting down WZRD. In the June 29 memo which clearly defined WZRD as "student-run," the NEIU administration declared, "The closure of the radio station is effective immediately. No students or staff not authorized by the Office of Student Leadership Development shall enter the radio station at any time." There is no clearer statement that students do not run WZRD, even if the administration has occasionally brought in a few hand-picked students to interrupt the auto-play they put WZRD on since June 29.

The illegal shutdown of WZRD by the NEIU administration was intolerable even for a day. The fact that this lockout has continued for four months shows the NEIU administration's disregard for both state law and their own students.