Banning Chief representations violates freedom of speech

By Stephanie Youssef

On April 3, a University student wrote a provocative public letter against the University detailing her on-campus experiences as an indigenous student and posted it online. Even after the University retired Chief Illiniwek as a symbol, in the letter, the student demanded that all portrayals of the Chief by students be banned on campus by the University administration.

Beyond the disrespect the student said she feels and the controversy behind the representation of the Chief, the letter brings to light an important oversight common with current controversial social issues: This student, and many Americans in general, fail to recognize the definition and importance of freedom of expression.

Examples of social issues that also illustrate this failure are the recent controversies surrounding pro-traditional marriage representations by the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson and Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy. Their shared opinions about marriage have been met with more than just critical reception. Members of the movement for marriage equality — which grounds its principles on being more accepting and tolerant of the LGBT community — were intolerant of these men’s views and tried to silence them.  

Whether you agree with their opinions, everyone must fully recognize the fact that when Eich, Robertson and Cathy expressed their views, they were exercising their constitutional right to speak their minds. Opposition can use freedom of expression and voice any disagreement, but it is illegitimate to react with a witch-hunt designed to keep these men from stating their beliefs — no matter how insulted or disrespected their views may make you feel.   

The United States Constitution does not guarantee the right to not be offended. 

You are not entitled to restrict others’ freedom of expression — regardless of how personally upset you are. It is an irrefutable element of the Bill of Rights that is crucial in maintaining the freedoms this great country was founded on and the freedoms we still value today.

Similarly, you cannot twist general statements listed within the University’s student code to infringe on students’ constitutional right to self-expression. Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the Board of Trustees, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the individuals and groups this student’s letter is targeting, are not responsible for the remnants of the Chief on campus because all clothing shops and registered organizations directly affiliated with the University have already stopped using the Chief as an official mascot. If the University — a public institution receiving subsidized taxpayer funding — tried to ban any form of self-expression on campus, the United States Government would most likely intervene. 

To say that Chief Illiniwek, a symbol that the University administration has retired, still exists on campus due to the pressures of wealthy alumni or supposed insensitivities toward minority groups is emotional speculation.

There is a long history of lawsuits against codes of conduct that restrict freedom of expression because courts rightfully uphold individual rights. In the 1971 case, Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court upheld Paul Cohen’s right to wear a shirt saying “F— the Draft,” overturning an appellate court’s ruling that his shirt “maliciously and willfully disturb[ed] the peace.” 

In the 2003 case, Barber v. Dearborn Public Schools, Bretton Barber won his right to wear an anti-George W. Bush shirt in school, despite allegations by the school administration that his shirt promoted terrorism and violated their school code.

This is not to say the Constitution restricts you from reacting to something you find personally offensive. You have the right to try to shed light on the issue and start a movement away from offensive practices.

A good example of this — which the student who authored the letter could learn from — is the R-Word movement, which campaigns against the use of the word “retard” in a derogatory manner. The campaign does so by spreading awareness through social media, asking people to pledge against using the word and supporting its mission’s cause with evidence as to why the word is hurtful. The campaign’s mission is not to make it illegal to use the word — doing so would be a violation of individual rights. With the way the campaign carries its mission, it achieves respect by making its pledge a personal choice as opposed to a forced one. 

I strongly value my right to speak my mind, regardless of the public’s reception. My individual rights stay with me wherever I go — they cannot be taken away just because I cross campus boundaries, for example. 

Restricting my ability to exercise my freedom of expression on campus by banning Chief Illiniwek clothing because it may offend others is unconstitutional and should be rejected by every student.

Stephanie is a sophomore in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @syoussef22.