Victory: University of Illinois Shelves Proposed Email Policy Due to Free Speech Problems
September 14, 2011
by Ari Cohn
Proving that positive change can come even at the last minute, FIRE took on a proposed policy with only two days to spare (across a weekend, at that), and is now proud to announce that our efforts have been successful.
Late last week, we obtained a copy of a proposed electronic communications policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), set for discussion and a vote on Monday, September 12. After finding several First Amendment flaws in the proposed policy, we teamed up with Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and a UIUC professor, and wrote a letter to UIUC on Friday afternoon. We asked the university and its Academic Senate to reject the policy until its constitutional infirmities were addressed. FIRE's involvement drew quick media attention: Later that same day, our involvement was the feature story on a Central Illinois news broadcast, and on Monday both the Daily Illini and Inside Higher Ed ran articles on the controversy and our involvement.
Yesterday morning brought welcome news. The Daily Illini reports that hours before UIUC's Academic Senate was set to meet, both Interim Chancellor Robert Easter and the Senate Executive Committee withdrew their recommendation that the policy be approved. Senate Executive Committee Vice Chair Joyce Tolliver referred to the joint FIRE-AAUP letter, saying:
We determined that we still need more information about the proposed policy ... Some questions have been raised. Conversation with the chancellor led us to agree that it would be better to wait until some of the questions are worked out and bring it back for more informed discussion.
The News-Gazette also reports that our letter is directly responsible for the shelving of this policy. Interim Chancellor Easter made clear that "[t]he last thing we want to do is violate anyone's right to free speech," and Senate Executive Committee Chairman Matthew Wheeler said (referring to our letter):
We believe this warrants more serious consideration by senate committees, the Senate Executive Committee and the chancellor's office ...
The good news doesn't end there. Yesterday afternoon, FIRE received a direct response from UIUC Deputy University Counsel Steven Veazie, which made clear to us that UIUC wants to make sure that the First Amendment rights of its campus community members are protected. The letter stated, in part:
First Amendment considerations need to be front and center in any articulation of University policies on computer use, to ensure that constitutionally protected speech is fully protected. I think your letter raises a number of important points, and we will take those into account in making appropriate revisions.
This is a promising statement in support of the UIUC community's First Amendment rights, and we are pleased that Interim Chancellor Easter, the Senate Executive Committee, and Deputy University Counsel Veazie had the courage and integrity to postpone a policy that was likely to pass, on very short notice and in order to fully address the policy's effect on free speech at UIUC. Given their apparent commitment, we are hopeful that the issues we raised will be adequately addressed. And as always, FIRE stands ready to help in whatever way we can.