Advanced

Beverly v. Watson

From July 2014 to March 2019
Chicago State University (Public college or university)
Chicago, IL

Identity of Speakers

  • Philip Beverly
    Faculty/Staff
    Other

    At the time of filing, Beverly served as an associate professor of political science at Chicago State University. He currently serves as a Director at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

  • Robert Bionaz
    Faculty/Staff
    Other

    Professor Bionaz serves as an associate professor of history at Chicago State University.

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Other
  • Incident Responses:
    University administration not protective of speech
    University administration changes university policy as a consequence of event
    Litigation
    Title IX or other federal statute
  • Incident Status:
    Settled
  • No protest Occured
  • Was Speech Code incident

Summary

In 2009, several professors at Chicago State University started a blog called CSU Faculty Voice. The blog criticized university administrators, including the university’s former President Wayne Watson, and reportedly suggested that the administration may have been ballooning their own salaries and perks as enrollment rates plummeted. One of the blog posts reportedly claimed that the girlfriend of a University’s President Executive Council member had falsified her application for employment at the university.

In response to the critical blog posts, university officials questioned two contributors to the blog, Professors Beverly and Bionaz, about the tone of the posts in 2013. In doing so, they reportedly told the professors that the blog did not adhere to the university’s generally accepted standard of civility. Shortly thereafter, university officials sent Beverly a cease and desist letter demanding that he and his fellow contributors shut down the blog. The cease and desist letter ordered Beverly to disable the blog or face legal action for using CSU’s trade names and marks without permission and violating the University’s “values and policies requiring civility and professionalism.”

Despite this threat, both Beverly and Bionaz continued to post on the blog. According to reports and court filings, the university made several more attempts to shut down the blog, including attempts to remove the faculty contributors from their academic positions altogether. For example, the college’s former interim vice president of enrollment and student affairs said in a sworn statement that the university’s former President Wayne Watson pressured her to accuse Beverly of sexual harassment, even despite her protests that such an accusation would be false. Around the same time, the university also adopted an “Electronic Harassment/Cyberbullying Policy” that outwardly aimed at curbing the harassment of students and faculty was adopted. Shortly after the policy took effect, CSU’s Director of Public Relations filed a complaint against Professor Bionaz for oral statements that Bionaz allegedly made about the complainant. Although Bionaz was eventually cleared of wrongdoing for that particular incident, university officials reportedly sent a letter to Bionaz threatening that “if [his] behavior continues” he could be found to be in violation of the Policy and “subject to disciplinary action.”

Beverly and Bionaz filed a § 1983 action in July of 2014 in response to the alleged retaliation they experienced by the university administration as a result of their blog. Specifically, they claimed the Computer Usage Policy violated the First Amendment on its face in light of its vague and overbroad terms. They further claimed that the Policy violated their rights to free speech as applied. Finally, they alleged that their First Amendment rights had been violated in light of the retaliatory actions the university had taken to shut down their blog in the first place.

On January 13, 2015, the Northern District of Illinois denied a motion to dismiss the professors’ claims. On September 29, 2017 the Northern District of Illinois denied a motion to dismiss the professors’ claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Additionally, the court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court found that while the University’s Cyberbullying Policy may have been unconstitutionally vague or overbroad, the professors failed to adequately demonstrate that the Policy implicates protected expression and thus dismissed one count of the complaint. The court denied all other aspects of the motion for summary judgment. Ultimately, the case settled in January 2019. CSU agreed to rewrite the Policy at issue and pay Beverly and Bionaz $650,000 in damages and attorney’s fees as a result of the settlement.