First of all, let me thank the administration of Chicago State University for calling my attention — and the attention of thousands of others — to the informative and entertaining blog maintained by Chicago State faculty as a forum for “the faculty’s uncensored voice.” As the Chicago Tribune, insidehighered, and the Chronicle of Higher Education all reported this morning, the university on November 11 sent Political Science Professor Phillip Beverly, an Academic Senate officer and founder of the CSU Faculty Voice blog, a “cease and desist” letter demanding that site administrators “immediately disable” the blog and provide written confirmation that they had done so by the end of the week.
In the letter, now posted on the blog site, Patrick Cage, university vice president and general counsel, said the site employed university “trade names and marks” without permission. Cage also claimed the blog “violates the University’s values and policies requiring civility and professionalism of all University faculty members.” In response, Beverly removed a photo of a campus sign and a “CSU” hedge sculpture from the site, replacing them with a photo of a building from another university. He also changed the name of the site to “Crony State University,” an ironic reference to an ongoing faculty concern with university administrative hiring practices.
“We had that (old) picture up since April of 2009. I’ve actually gotten tired of it,” Beverly told the Tribune. “It’s time for a change, and this is good enough reason to change it.”
In a March 2012 email to faculty and staff, Chicago State announced a policy that would require all employees, including faculty, to obtain prior approval to talk to any reporter, use social media, or engage in most forms of public communication. Those who violated the policy would risk losing their jobs, the email stated. Facing widespread complaints that the policy was inappropriate and illegal (and no small amount of ridicule), the university backed down. Apparently, the administration has now concluded that it is time for some additional negative publicity.
While Chicago State may have an argument that use of its trademarks without permission is illegal, its contention that the bloggers cannot use its name or must adhere to some ill-defined standard of “civility” is entirely without legal, much less ethical, foundation. Anyone who might be misled to believe that the blog is an official publication of the University needs some serious assistance in life. This is clearly an independent, albeit critical, voice, maintained outside the university and hence fully protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the most basic principles of academic freedom. Moreover, the publicly funded university’s claim that the blog violates its standards of civility is itself a flagrant violation of principles of academic freedom long endorsed by the AAUP.
Earlier this month AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure approved a revised draft policy on “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications,” which will be posted on the AAUP website for comment soon. That policy draft specifically addresses the issue of “unwarranted inference of speaking for or representing the institution.” Noting that the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure cautions that faculty members “should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution” when in fact they are not doing so, it recognizes that in the digital world avoiding such an inference may be more difficult. The policy goes on:
The very nature of the Internet causes attribution to be decontextualized. A statement made by a faculty member on a website or in an email or social media communication may be recirculated broadly, and any declaration that the institution bears no responsibility for the statement will be lost. . . . Institutions may reasonably take steps to avoid inferences of institutional attribution or complicity, in ways that print communications might not warrant. . . . [But] faculty members cannot be held responsible for always indicating that they are speaking as individuals and not for their institution, especially if doing so will place an undue burden on the faculty member’s ability to express views in electronic media.
Chicago State’s demand that the blog be shut down, and not simply that use of its trademarks cease, indicates clearly that the administration’s intent is to silence a dissenting faculty voice. The university’s letter is little more than a thuggish effort to bully and frighten, with no legal or moral justification. Its action therefore deserves the same sort of condemnation and contempt that greeted its previous bone-headed effort to require prior approval of all faculty communications with the media, including contributions to social media. I hope Professor Beverly and the other bloggers at “Crony State” stand firm against this demand. The AAUP certainly is ready to provide whatever assistance we can.