University of Illinois sued for allegedly chilling speech with 'bias response team'

Speech First, a First Amendment advocacy group, sued the University of Illinois on Thursday, claiming that it suppressed political advocacy and instituted a "bias response" regime that chilled students' willingness to express their opinions.

"On a regular basis, the University of Illinois sends a clear message to students who wish to engage in political and religious speech. There are some views that are welcome and others that are not," Speech First president Nicole Neily told Fox News.

Speech First brought the case on behalf of member students attending the university. Several students, the group argued, felt uncomfortable either supporting President Trump or engaging in civil discourse that the university might consider biased or offensive -- a charge the group says could result in punishment including possible expulsion from university housing.

"Students deserve to be able to express themselves and voice their opinions without fear of investigation or punishment, which is why these policies must be reformed," Neily also said.

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The lawsuit, filed in the Central District of Illinois, targeted three particular aspects of the University's practices: the bias response team, restrictions on posting flyers for political candidates, and "no contact directives" which effectively function as a restraining order. Speech First sought to block disciplinary action through a preliminary injunction as part of the suit.

The action was the latest in a series of allegations that public colleges violated the First Amendment with speech codes or anti-harassment policies that disproportionately punished more conservative viewpoints.

In a statement provided to Fox News, the university stated its commitment to free expression. "The University of Illinois is deeply committed to the core values of free speech and free expression and to the open exchange of competing ideas and perspectives," a university spokesperson said.

"The University has not received official notice of this litigation, but we will review any filings and respond appropriately."

The controversy surrounding free speech on campus reached President Trump when he signed an executive order in March, threatening to cut off federal research funding from offending universities. It's unclear how the administration will implement that but groups like Speech First will continue wrestling with the issue in the courts, opening the door for the Justice Department to once again offer its opposition to these types of policies.

The University of Illinois, which reported nearly $360 million in "sponsored federal research and development expenditures" for FY' 17, set up a "Bias Assessment & Response Team" -- or a type of "speech police," according to the suit -- that investigates so-called "bias-motivated incidents."

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Those incidents, according to the university, included "actions or expressions that are motivated, at least in part, by prejudice against or hostility toward a person (or group) because of that person's (or group's) actual perceived age, disability/ability status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, national origin, race, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, etc."

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In its latest annual report, the BART listed a slew of blatantly offensive behaviors -- including distributing flyers to join the Ku Klux Klan -- but, according to Speech First, violations could easily include behaviors protected by the First Amendment.

BART's definition of "bias-motivated incidents," according to the suit, was also overbroad and vague enough to chill free speech. The lawsuit pointed to things like displaying a confederate flag.Speech First argued that enforcement criteria for "no content directives" -- which restrict a student's interaction with another student -- were similarly arbitrary and could result in expulsion from the university.