Setback for academic freedom

June 25, 2012

Rachel Cohen reports on a court ruling dismissing a defamation suit filed by Professor Loretta Capeheart--and explains why this is a sore blow to academic freedom.

AN ILLINOIS court dealt a serious attack to one of the country's most pivotal legal battles for academic freedom. On June 19, Judge Randye Kogan dismissed a defamation suit brought by Professor Loretta Capeheart to challenge an attempt by her employer, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), to silence her. Adding to the severity of the decision, Judge Kogan may require Capeheart to pay the university's legal fees.

The decision has been condemned as a fundamental distortion of legislation designed to protect employees from unjustified lawsuits by government and corporate institutions. This decision grants impunity to former NEIU Vice Provost Melvin Terrell for making a baseless, slanderous, public accusation that Capeheart had been charged by a student with the felony sex crime of stalking--a statement Capeheart claims can only have been intended to intimidate her as she questioned university hiring policy at a faculty senate meeting.

Shaun Harkin, a member of the Justice for Loretta Capeheart Campaign, explained, "The Illinois Citizens Participation Act was designed to protect people from powerful institutions. The judge has turned the act on its head by using it to do the opposite: to protect NEIU, a powerful institution, and its administration."

Loretta Capeheart at a 2009 rally held to defend her
Loretta Capeheart at a 2009 rally held to defend her

THE DEFAMATION suit was one front in a legal battle Capeheart has been waging since 2008.

A tenured faculty member, Capeheart has often demonstrated her principled and outspoken commitment to antiwar, antiracist and pro-union politics. In return, the NEIU administration has retaliated with a series of personal and professional attacks against her. In addition to slander, these have included refusing to acknowledge Capeheart as the duly elected chair of her department and denial of awards recognizing professional achievement.

But rather than let their intimidation tactics succeed, as Harkin went on to say:

Loretta has shown tremendous bravery and resilience in the face of the relentless attack on her character and rights by the NEIU's administration. They are clearly trying to demoralize Loretta and bankrupt her. This is designed to send a message to anyone else who decides to speak out about NEIU's lack of democracy and harassment of faculty and students.

However, support for Loretta's campaign for justice is growing across the country. More faculty unions, civil liberties organizations, student groups and individuals are joining the campaign to expose what NEIU is doing and to give financial support. Loretta deserves solidarity because she has been willing to stand up to protect herself, and because she is fighting for others. If the attack on Loretta is allowed to stand it will have national repercussions--it really is an attack on academic freedom, campus activism, all public sector workers and rights in the workplace.

What you can do

Visit the Justice for Loretta Capeheart website for updates on the case. Post a link to the website on Facebook and Twitter, and send it to your friends and coworkers. Sign the petition calling for justice for Loretta.

Send e-mails, phone calls and letters to NEIU President Sharon K. Hahs, [email protected], 773-442-5400 and President Sharon K. Hahs, 5500 N. St. Louis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625.

Support the campaign financially. You can make a donation to the legal fund via Paypal at the Justice for Loretta Capeheart website, or by sending a check to Thomas D. Rosenwein, Glickman, Flesch & Rosenwein, 230 W. Monroe St., Suite 800, Chicago, IL 60606, Memo: Loretta Capeheart Defense.

Show your solidarity by passing resolutions in your union, your faculty senate or other organization through which you can gain support. Send messages of support to [email protected].

Capeheart initially sought a mere public apology from administrators to clear Terrell's accusation from her professional record. When her request was ignored, she pressed legal charges, including an ongoing federal lawsuit currently awaiting the decision of an appellate court.

On June 20, faculty from a number of Chicago-area campuses joined student activists, NEIU alumni and other supporters for a press conference to speak out against the lower court's ruling and express their determination to continue the fight.

Brett Stockdill, chair of NEIU's Department of Sociology, African and African American Studies, Latino and Latin American Studies, and Women's Studies, praised Capeheart's record of consistently speaking out for workers, immigrants, students, fellow faculty and other marginal groups. Stockdill also recognized Capeheart for standing as a fearless public critic against racist, illegal wars abroad and cruel tactics of intimidation, deception, and lies on the part of NEIU administrators.

In addition to Capeheart's leading participation in a faculty strike in 2004 and public defense of students arrested while peacefully protesting CIA recruiters on campus in 2006, Stockdill pointed to more recent events that reveal the priorities of NEIU administration.

One example was NEIU President Sharon Hahs' 2008 proposal to restrict free speech on campus to between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and with amplification only between 1:50 p.m. and 2:40 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Vocal outrage mobilized by Capeheart and others stopped the policy from being implemented.

In 2010, protest was unsuccessful in stopping administrators from dismantling the school's office of Adult and Women's services. Claiming budget shortfalls, NEIU fired the office's head, Dr. Sheena Warren, and cut off vital services counseling survivors of domestic and sexual violence, which included sometimes helping them to devise escape plans, or to access other critical resources. Meanwhile, Stockdill pointed out the lavish salaries and raises President Hahs has decreed for herself and other administrators.

As Stockdill concluded:

With public-sector employees under attack nationally and globally, we must stand with Loretta Capeheart. With unions in Illinois and beyond facing assaults, we must stand with Loretta Capeheart. With free speech under attack on college and universities campuses and other workplaces, we must be as brave as Loretta Capeheart and use our voices to call for adherence to the First Amendment.

IN THE face of this legal setback, Capeheart explained why she continues to press forward:

I'll admit I've lost countless nights of sleep over these years of battle. But what keeps me going is the stakes. I once heard a remark that the battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low. Were that the case here, the battle would have never begun. Here, the stakes are so high that giving up seems a betrayal not only of my own integrity, but that of my profession, colleagues, public employees and so many others...

While I do not know how much the university has spent attempting to silence criticism, I know what I have spent. Therefore, I am pretty sure that the university has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. And what have they gained? They didn't have to say, "I was wrong, sorry" and they kept me from positions and awards.

Good investment? When you consider that they might get to set up their totalitarian regime, maybe for the university administration and other state agencies wishing to impose an iron fist, it is a good investment.

What about the rest of us? What about those of us who fund universities with our tax dollars and tuition dollars? What about those who have to work within these regimes? Is this what we deserve, no voice and no recourse?

Longtime immigrant rights and labor activist Jorge Mujíca reminded supporters at the press conference that this is not merely a legal but also a political fight. The priorities of NEIU's administration mirror those on display at many colleges and universities nationwide, while growing numbers of academics find their speech rights threatened and public employees draw fire from Democratic and Republican politicians alike.

Capeheart's struggle has gathered the support of faculty unions at Rutgers University, Harper College and University of Texas at Austin, along with the American Association of University Professors. Civil liberties and union advocates, including Center for Constitutional Rights President Michael Ratner, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey and former University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Bill Ayers have all lent their support to a petition in defense of Professor Capeheart.

As her struggle continues, every student, professor, public educator, union member and those interested in social justice need to join together and spread the word to support justice for Professor Loretta Capeheart.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives