Blogging Professors Can Sue School Officials on Free-Speech Claims

(CN) – A federal judge ruled that two professors can pursue claims that Chicago State University officials launched a campaign to punish them for criticizing the school’s administration on a blog created by faculty members.

In a 28-page opinion issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall gave CSU professors Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz the green light to move ahead on free-speech and retaliation allegations against the university and former members of its administration.

Beverly, Bionaz and other university staff members founded the CSU Faculty Voice blog in 2009 to create an “outlet for the personal opinions of the contributing faculty members,” according to the ruling.

“Articles appearing on the blog are frequently critical of CSU’s administration, accusing the university’s officials of all manner of misdeeds, including mismanagement, nepotism and plagiarism,” Judge Gottschall wrote in the decision.

Friction arose between CSU faculty and campus leadership in 2013 when former CSU President Wayne Watson and then-Executive Counsel Patrick Cage reportedly confronted Beverly “about the tone of posts on the CSU Faculty Voice and why the blog did not adhere to generally accepted ‘civility’ standards.”

“According to Beverly, the questioning was prompted by an article Bionaz had posted on the blog five days earlier, which reported that Watson’s girlfriend had falsified her application for employment at CSU,” Judge Gottschall wrote.

The ruling added, “Watson and Cage did not claim that any information posted on the blog was inaccurate but instead complained the article ‘was ‘uncivil’ and that feelings had been hurt.’”

Less than a week later, Beverly says he received a cease-and-desist letter from Cage, ordering him to “disable” the CSU Faculty Voice. In the letter, Cage allegedly threatened legal action because the blog used the school’s trademarks without permission.

Beverly alleges the letter was meant to enforce CSU’s computer-usage policy, which sets guidelines for appropriate use of university computers by students and staff.

The professors claim Watson, Cage and Janelle Carter, the university’s former assistant general counsel, launched a campaign to punish them for complaining about the administration online and refusing to cease their blogging activities.

“They claim that, beginning in January 2014, Watson, Cage and other CSU administrators met on several occasions to come up with other ways of silencing them and retaliating against them. According to plaintiffs, these efforts included an attempt by Watson to trump up sexual harassment charges against Beverly,” Friday’s opinion states.

Watson allegedly tried to convince LaShondra Peebles, then-interim vice president of enrollment and student affairs, to say Beverly had sexually harassed her.

According to court records, Peebles testified: “Watson said that he and the CSU administration were in a fight against Beverly and that he wanted to get rid of Beverly. Watson told me that he needed my help in the fight and advised me to file a lawsuit for sexual harassment against Beverly based on Beverly’s visit to my office. I told Watson that I did not feel threatened or harassed by Beverly’s conversation. Nonetheless, Watson asserted that I had been harassed and that I ‘did not realize it.”’

The professors allege school officials also adopted a cyberbullying policy to further stifle their speech.

Tom Wogan, CSU’s director of public relations, accused Bionaz of violating the school’s cyberbullying policy and filed a harassment claim against him.

“The complaint arose as not a result of online communication but in connection with a face-to-face confrontation in which Bionaz allegedly leaned over a table where Wogan was seated, pointed a finger in his face, called him a liar, and made other ‘inflammatory statements,’” Judge Gottschall wrote.

Carter investigated the claims and concluded Bionaz had not violated the policy, but reportedly sent him a letter stating: “If your behavior continues, you could be found responsible for violating the policy and subjected to disciplinary action.”

Beverly and Bionaz claim the school’s computer-usage and cyberbullying policies were implemented to chill their free speech.

The administration claimed in court that the policies were never actually applied to any individual professor.

“It is true that Bionaz was not found to have violated the policy; but it can be fairly argued that the investigation itself was an ‘application’ of the policy,” Gottschall wrote in her decision.

The administration argued its computer-usage policy could not have been applied to the professors and their blog because the blog is not hosted on a CSU server, nor is it a CSU technology asset, and insist their speech has not been chilled by either policy because blog posts have increased in volume, even after the cease-and-desist letter was sent.

Judge Gottschall noted that the volume of posts may have increased, but the content of the posts have changed, indicating the policies may have led to bloggers watering down criticism of the school.

Beverly and Bionaz claim the number of bloggers on the site has been cut in half as a direct result of the policies, and that some staff members refrain from posting because they fear retaliation from school officials.

Judge Gottschall ruled the teachers have shown evidence of retaliation at the hand of the administration and that the computer-usage policy may have been used as a way to interfere with their free speech.

“Plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence as to each of these elements,” Gottschall wrote. “First, defendants do not dispute that the expression on the CSU Faculty Voice, and the other expression at issue in this case, is protected by the First Amendment. Second, plaintiffs point to several examples of adverse action based on their speech, including Cage’s November 2013 cease-and-desist letter and Watson’s attempts to coax Peebles into filing a false sexual harassment claim against Beverly. Finally, plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that the retaliatory actions were based on plaintiffs’ exercise of the right of freedom of speech.”

As of Monday morning, there is no mention of the latest ruling on the CSU Faculty Voice blog, which features a banner that says “Crony $tate University,” “Where competent people are fired and our friends are hired.”

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