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Macek: Academic freedom under fire

Steve Macek is an associate professor speech communicatiNorth Central College Naperville.

Steve Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College in Naperville.

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:03AM



It long has been known that college and university faculty must be free to pursue research, teach classes and engage in vigorous debate about matters of both public and academic concern without fear of reprisal.

Institutions of higher education that stifle dissent and free speech, especially concerning their faculty, are unlikely to produce graduates with open and critical minds or foster breakthroughs in the search for new knowledge.

That’s why what happened to professor Loretta Capeheart of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago is so disturbing.

Capeheart has taught justice studies at NEIU for more than 10 years. She also has been a vocal participant in academic governance at her institution, a leader in her faculty union and a mentor to student anti-war activists.

Not one to hold her tongue, when a group of Latino state legislators visited the university in September 2006, Capeheart told them NEIU needed to do more to recruit qualified Latino faculty. A few months later, when members of a student club she advises were arrested in an anti-CIA demonstration on campus, she spoke up on their behalf and publicly questioned the supervisor of campus security about his handling of the incident.

Such candor should be a defining characteristic of all discussion at the university. But rather than accept Capeheart’s criticisms as part of an open debate, the NEIU administration chose to punish her.

At a faculty meeting in which the arrest of student protestors was discussed, university vice president Melvin Terrell attacked Capeheart, falsely claiming that a student had filed stalking charges against her. The allegation was completely unfounded.

The administration subsequently denied her a merit raise and faculty excellence award for which she had been recommended. Even more troubling, when Capeheart’s colleagues elected her to serve as department chair, the administration refused to let her assume the position, ultimately putting her department into receivership.

Capeheart initially chose to combat this pattern of abuse via Northeastern Illinois’ internal grievance procedure. She later sued the school’s administration in federal court for defamation of character (the bogus stalking claim) and for denying her right to free speech.

Things then went from bad to worse. NEIU’s lawyers responded to the lawsuit by invoking a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision and claiming that Capeheart’s criticisms of the university administration weren’t covered by the First Amendment.

In that ruling, the high court found that expression by public employees pursuant to their official duties is not protected by the right to free speech. Even though that Supreme Court decision explicitly exempted professors at public universities, a federal judge accepted NEIU’s reasoning and threw out Capeheart’s lawsuit on grounds that the speech that got her into trouble was part of her official responsibilities as a member of the faculty.

The judge’s ruling potentially imperils the academic freedom of faculty at all public colleges and universities. As the American Association of University Professors put it, ”The message of the district court’s ruling is chilling and clear: University administrators need not tolerate outspoken faculty dissent on matters of broad public concern.”

After the loss in U.S. District Court, Capeheart and her lawyers took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago — despite the fact that she is about $100,000 in debt and recently suffered a setback in a parallel lawsuit that could make her liable for a substantial portion of NEIU’s legal bills.

Capeheart and her supporters have vowed to fight on — gathering signatures, collecting donations for her legal fund and raising awareness about the danger posed to academic freedom by court rulings in her case.

The American Association of University Professors has contributed money for the appeal. Faculty at Harper College in Palatine and Chicago’s city colleges have passed resolutions of support.

These groups understand that if Northeastern Illinois is allowed to deprive Loretta Capeheart of her First Amendment rights, the rights of all faculty members will be diminished.

Steve Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College in Naperville.



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