When Chicago State University’s response to a humiliating federal-court defeat — which found that the college had violated the free-speech rights of its fired newspaper adviser and former editor-in-chief — was to issue a triumphant news release declaring victory, you knew it wouldn’t be long before the college returned to the First Amendment doghouse.
Twenty-three days, to be exact.
Having learned nothing from U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer’s order — which found that CSU committed multiple First Amendment violations, including firing journalism adviser Gervain Steven Moore in 2008 to punish news articles questioning the college’s money management — Chicago State has now circulated a campus-wide gag order that threatens discipline against any employee who says anything about the university, even on social media, without vetting it through the CSU public-relations office.
In an email sent March 22 to faculty and staff, Sabrina Land, the university’s director of marketing and communications, wrote that all communications must be ‘strategically deployed’ in a way that ‘safeguards the reputation, work product and ultimately, the students, of CSU.’
Well, so much for safeguarding the school’s reputation. What CSU did, instead, was call broader attention to its latest embarrassment, an unflattering state audit exposing sloppy accounting and record-keeping practices.
Blanket gag orders against public employees indisputably are unconstitutional, and any Chicago State employee who is punished for violating the order would have little difficulty getting the discipline overturned in federal court.
A federal court in Chicago dispensed with a similar issue in 1981, when the Chicago Fire Department tried to impose a disciplinary policy that “prohibits Department employees, whether on or off duty, from speaking to the press on any subject pertaining to Department activities.” In that case, Grady v. Blair, a U.S. district court summarily threw out the fire department’s policy as unconstitutionally overbroad:
To the extent that the rule is an attempt to insure that incorrect information is not disseminated to the media or the public, it sweeps much too broadly and infringes upon constitutionally protected speech … since it prohibits all comment on Department policy and operations whether favorable or unfavorable to the Department.
Courts elsewhere uniformly have agreed. For example, a federal district court in 2001 struck down as unconstitutional a New York City Police Department policy requiring employees to give five days’ advance notice to a supervisor, and a written after-the-fact summary, of any statement made to a public body. Although that policy was less speech-retrictive than Chicago State’s — it applied only to speeches at public events, not interviews with the media, and it required only prior notice as opposed to prior approval — the court in Latino Officers’ Association v. Safir still found that the policy risked intimidating NYPD employees from exercising their First Amendment rights.
When a college goes into extreme circle-the-wagons mode, that is normally a sign that the college administration is imminently heading down the drain, because colleges do not normally attempt to gag their employees unless they know they’ve done indefensible things that cannot withstand public scrutiny.
Chicago State has a well-qualified Board of Trustees that includes several members with legal training. The college appears to have completely jumped the rails, and it cannot be long before the Trustees step in and restore order.