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Students Return to WZRD After Six-Month Lockout By NEIU Administration

By John Wilson

After more than six months of being locked out of their radio station, WZRD (88.3 FM), students at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) were finally allowed back into their station, and returned to the air on January 7. The WZRD students posted on facebook, “we are back in the driver seat once again.”

The administration had demanded changes to the WZRD constitution, including adding “musical preference” to the prohibited nondiscrimination categories, and “a statement of civility and decorum.” However, the students refused to agree, and reportedly were allowed back into the station without submitting to any of the administration’s demands.

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 violated 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.

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 quickly 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 affairs (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 the…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 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, 2012 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 did not run WZRD.

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

On November 6, 2012, acting director of Student Leadership Development Veronica Rodriguez wrote a memo announcing her decision about the fate of WZRD. Rodriguez declared that WZRD could be restored to an active club on December 1, but only if the organization accepted a long last of mandatory changes approved by the administration. WZRD collective member Peter Ali Enger stated, “we find the conditions laid out by Ms. Rodriguez to be unacceptable, as none of the vague accusations mentioned in various pieces of paper issued by unknown entities at NEIU have been found to have any substance, nor has anyone at WZRD been found guilty of any transgressions of policies or student conduct rules at NEIU. Therefore there is no reason to demand or request any changes in WZRD student organization bylaws, policies, or application and training procedures.” Rodriguez’s memo demanded that WZRD expand its non-discrimination statement (which already matches the statement by other student groups), and limit the powers of the Program Director.

Rodriguez also announced that the NEIU administration would hire an “Administrative Station Manager” for Spring 2013, who apparently would exert ultimate control over the station, another violation of the state law giving students control of their own media. But the most extraordinary part of Rodriguez’s memo was a requirement that WZRD’s bylaws and constitution must include “a statement of civility and decorum on how the actions of DJ’s and other members will be treated within the club to be compatible with the community standards as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct.” Rodriguez’s letter also included a direct threat to punish any students who might violate these new rules on “civility and decorum”: “Any member of the WZRD student organization, who violates its constitution and/or policies, or the Student Code of Conduct, will be recommended to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.” This is particularly alarming because the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR) is NEIU’s office for punishing students who violate the Code of Conduct. This seemed to indicate that a WZRD student who is uncivil to another DJ could run the risk of being formally punished, and even could be expelled from the university for lack of decorum.

Apparently, NEIU administrators believe that “civility and decorum” are required of all students under the Student Code of Conduct. What makes this so disturbing is that the Student Code of Conduct is a fairly straightforward statement of rules without any mention of “civility and decorum.” NEIU’s administration does have a “Community Standard” statement on its website, but it’s not clear that this is actually a formal policy of NEIU, and even this “Community Standard” says nothing about compulsory civility. Even though NEIU doesn’t have a Code of Conduct that imposes “civility and decorum,” NEIU administrators were saying that WZRD must compel “civility and decorum” in its bylaws and constitution in order to comply with the NEIU Code of Conduct, and that violators of civility will be punished by the administration. This is one of the strangest ways I’ve ever seen a college administration attempt to impose a blatantly unconstitutional speech code.

This “civility and decorum” rule was being proposed because a WZRD student allegedly (off the air) criticized the musical choices of another student at WZRD (or as NEIU put it, “being verbally attacked” to “express disagreement with the type of music the student DJ has played”), which was one of the main charges leading NEIU to shut down the radio station for “a climate of fear, bullying, and intimidation” in violation of the Student Code of Conduct. There’s a good reason why the NEIU Code of Conduct does not actually prohibit “fear, bullying, and intimidation” and does not compel “civility and decorum,” because such vague words might be used to limit First Amendment rights.

The fact that NEIU allowed the WZRD back on the air without any changes to its rules, and without any kind of disciplinary hearing, only shows how illegitimate the six-month lockout was. Although NEIU administrators reversed their mistake after six months, they still have not admitted it was a mistake, nor have they offered any assurances that future acts of censorship will not happen.