The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Speech First, a national organization that advocates for student free speech, settled a lawsuit on Tuesday, in which the group challenged a number of bias-related policies at the campus. The settlement narrowly allows both the university and Speech First to avoid taking the matter to the United States Supreme Court; Speech First planned to request this week that the court review the case, according to the settlement agreement document filed in an Illinois district court.
The lawsuit took aim at practices by the university’s bias response team and protocol for bias incidents in campus residence halls, arguing that they violated students’ First Amendment rights. Speech First also challenged a requirement that students receive university approval before posting and distributing literature that promotes political candidates for “non-campus elections,” which has since been eliminated, the settlement agreement said. The policy was removed from Urbana-Champaign’s student code shortly after Speech First filed its lawsuit in 2019, the agreement said.
Speech First’s lawsuit argued that the bias team and residence hall protocol led to investigations of students who were freely sharing opinions about contested topics, such as their support for Israel or for the university’s controversial former mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which was retired in 2007 after being criticized for being racist against Indigenous people. The settlement affirms that the bias team and administrators who enforce the residence hall protocol “have no authority to impose any form of discipline on any student” and “cannot compel students to speak … about bias-motivated incidents.”
The lawsuit also challenged university-issued and indefinite “no-contact directives” that were placed on students who were alleged to have violated the bias policy or who had a conflict with another student. In Tuesday’s settlement, the university agreed that no contact can only be ordered when “speech is accompanied by allegations of an actual or foreseeable Student Code violation, such as sexual harassment or stalking.”
The settlement stated that the agreement does not prohibit Speech First from suing the university again if it believes Urbana-Champaign officials are continuing to violate the First Amendment. The settlement is the second free speech-related resolution in two months between the organization and a major public institution; in December, Speech First settled with the University of Texas at Austin, which resulted in the university discontinuing its own bias response team.