Free Speech at Northeastern Illinois University
By Chris Poulos
While Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) students and faculty were busy preparing for finals and winter break last December, university president Sharon Hahs began the process of passing an insidious policy known as “Concerning Demonstrations on Campus, Distribution and Display of Visual Communication and Solicitation of Signatures on Campus,” or DDS for short. Essentially, it was an amplified version of current restrictions, which have earned NEIU a “red light” institutional rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), meaning it has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
The proposed policy was draconian at best. It would have prohibited students, faculty, and staff from engaging in simple exchanges of free speech (such as soliciting petitions) without going through the litany of NEIU bureaucracy. The temporal restrictions were alarming as well. Demonstrations, broadly defined as one or more persons expressing a point of view, and distribution, display and solicitation events taking place indoors would have been confined to the hours of 8:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday.
Fortunately, two of the four shared governance bodies (the Student Government Association, A&P Council, Faculty Senate, and Civil Service Council) and unfavorable media reports illuminated the unconstitutional nature of the DDS policy. President Hahs made the right decision in rescinding it.
Unfortunately, NEIU remains a “red light” institution. Our current policies are restrictive and commonly enforced. For example, students have been ordered to stop flyering and petitioning (ironically for freedom of thought and expression) in our Student Union. Furthermore, the NEIU community is limited to one indoor area where we are granted our First Amendment rights (known as the Village Square). In fact, taking a rough measurement, I found that the Village Square represents less than 1% of frequently visited indoor areas. This measurement was a rough approximation and far underestimated the total amount of indoor area. Accordingly, it would be fair to say that the NEIU community is allowed First Amendment rights on approximately 1% of the campus or that 99% of the campus is unconstitutional.
Such a display of repressive authority creates a chilling effect, which stifles the experience of a university education. For this reason, a group of students, faculty and staff have formed the Coalition United for Free Speech (CUFFS). CUFFS is currently working on a campaign to change the current restrictive policies and create a more open atmosphere fostering the free exchange of ideas and expression. We will be hosting a public forum in the spring, and would like to extend an invitation to the entire NEIU community.
Chris Poulos is a Sociology major at Northeastern Illinois University, and a member of the Coalition United for Free Speech. For more information please e-mail: NEIUFreespeech@gmail.com.