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The Shutdown of WZRD at NEIU

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 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 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.

About John K. Wilson

Author of "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies."

8 comments on “The Shutdown of WZRD at NEIU

  1. chicagopphoenix
    October 28, 2012

    Thank you for this brilliant article, Mr. Wilson! Well said!

    Wishing you every happiness and success-

    A Wizard
    (and former station manager of WZRD Chicago 88.3 fm)

  2. Pingback: The Civility and Decorum Police at NEIU, and the Continuing Shutdown of WZRD | Academe Blog

  3. Brendan Dickus
    December 17, 2012

    I am an NEIU student and taking the same “plain text reading” of the same College Campus Press Act excerpts that you have cited, I can safely say that you and the exiled “Wizards” are making the wrong argument. You are arguing the means vs. the ends. From a legalistic POV, NEIU is not concerning itself with the “content” of what is broadcast on the campus radio station, it is handling these matters from a different angle – one of “student life/clubs”. The “Wizards” are still free to broadcast any and all content it wishes and go about their business without interference from the university. However, the university is under no obligation to provide the club with funds or facilities. Aye, there’s the rub.

    • John K. Wilson
      December 17, 2012

      You need to clarify how you’re reading the law. NEIU is clearly concerning itself with the “content” of the radio station. By banning the Wizards from WZRD, it is directly controlling the content of what is played on the station. Maybe NEIU is not motivated by concerns about the content of what was played, but the law says nothing about motivations, and the motives don’t matter. What matters is that the law demands that students control the content of the radio station, including decisions about who is or is not allowed to broadcast. It’s absurd to claim that the Wizards are “free to broadcast” when they’re banned from the campus radio station. Sure, everyone is free to start their own radio station, buy a frequency for millions of dollars, build a broadcast tower, and all that. Obviously, the law wasn’t meant to protect the right of students to build an independent media outlet. It protects the right of students to control student-run media owned by public colleges, which is how NEIU describes WZRD. The law states quite clearly that the university is obligated to give the students control of their own media, in this case the radio station. Obviously, banning students from the radio station is a violation of that law. How can you say that anything else is permitted under this law? Where in the law does it give the university the ability to take over a radio station? It doesn’t matter what angle NEIU is using: it cannot take over control of student media under any circumstances under the law.

      • Brendan Dickus
        December 18, 2012

        The law does not compel any university to fund speech. It simply prohibits universities from controlling it. And though you reference “broadcast” in the analog sense, there’s nothing preventing students from setting up an “internet radio” station – in fact, the students at DePaul University have one which has won numerous awards.

      • John K. Wilson
        December 18, 2012

        The lockout at WZRD has absolutely nothing to do with funding. By preventing the Wizards from entering their radio station, NEIU isn’t saving any money; it is simply controlling speech. And, by the way, public colleges are prohibited from cutting off funds to student organizations simply because the administration doesn’t like them, so colleges are compelled to fund speech.

        You’re correct that students could set up an internet radio station. But why should they when there’s already a much better fully-equipped radio station they can use, broadcast and internet, that is sitting empty on autoplay. How can anyone justify letting a campus resource like that be wasted?

        Finally, the law explicitly says that “broadcast” student-run media are protected from having the administration take them over and ban all the students from speaking on the air. You may not think “broadcast” media are important, but the law clearly covers them.

  4. Pingback: Students Return to WZRD | Academe Blog

  5. Pingback: Chicago Calling on WZRD | Chicago Activism

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2012 by in students and tagged , , , , .
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