The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
More than four months after Northeastern Illinois University shut down the student-run radio station WZRD and banned the students from broadcasting, the lockout continues. On November 6, 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, changes that the WZRD students indicate they will not accept.
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 is 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 seems to indicate that a WZRD student who is uncivil to another DJ runs 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.
So, even though NEIU doesn’t have a Code of Conduct that imposes “civility and decorum,” NEIU administrators are 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 on a campus.
This “civility and decorum” rule is being imposed 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 the First Amendment right of anyone to criticize the music played at a radio station.
NEIU is attempting to impose “civility and decorum” rules that do not exist under the Student Code of Conduct and are plainly an unconstitutional speech code.
Regulation of decorum also appears to be a motivating factor for NEIU administration in the punishment of professor Loretta Capeheart and the denial of tenure to professor John Boyle. In Capeheart’s case, she was denied a raise and a position as chair for criticizing the administration and supporting the rights of students to protest on campus. In Boyle’s case, an exemplary scholar and teacher was denied tenure, apparently because he was falsely accused of advising students to switch their minor from ESL to his department, Linguistics. As the Illinois AAUP Committee A (of which I am a member) noted in its letter to NEIU, academic freedom fully protects the right of professors to advise students, and an alleged violation of academic decorum should be completely irrelevant to judging actual academic qualifications.
NEIU’s attack on the liberty of students and faculty is a disturbing development at any college. But at a public university required to follow state law (the College Campus Press Act) and the Constitution, these actions are also illegal.