Following the trend away from using Native American images as school mascots, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champage (UIUC) in 2007 retired Chief Illiniwek, who had been the school’s official mascot since 1926. Although more than a decade has passed, the decision to discard the mascot remains controversial among those who wish to bring back the Chief, as well as among those who believe the University, which still refers to its athletic teams as the Fighting Illini, did not go far enough. 

Disturbingly, however, students at UIUC who write articles in support of the mascot, post comments or memes about the mascot online, or dress up in Chief Illiniwek costumes are subject to investigation by the University’s Bias Assessment and Response Team (“BART”).

The University of Illinois defines a “bias-motivated incident” as any “action or expression” that is “motivated, at least in part, by prejudice against or hostility toward a person (or group) because of that person’s (or group’s) actual or perceived age, disability/ability status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, national origin, race, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, etc.” Although supporters of the mascot say that he represents Illinois’ proud Native American heritage, opponents believe that the symbol perpetuates racist stereotypes. 

According to Speech First, a non-profit membership organization that is suing the University for First Amendment violations, BART actively encourages reports about speech in favor of bringing back the Chief and frequently investigates pro-mascot students. In its complaint, Speech First notes that: 

The BART has investigated a student who dressed as Chief Illiniwek and marched in the homecoming parade; a student who posted a picture of Chief Illiniwek on the student’s Facebook page; a student who posted a meme about Chief Illiniwek in a Facebook group; and students who planned a “Meeting with the Chief” program in support of bringing back the Chief.  

This practice of investigating students whose opinions others find offensive is, unfortunately, not limited to the University of Illinois. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), at least 232 American colleges and universities maintained Orwellian bias response programs during the course of 2016. Supporters of bias response teams claim that they promote civility and campus safety. In practice, they allow students to weaponize the bureaucracy against their fellow students whom they know fear punishment or reputational damage from a possible investigation.

Because bias response teams have a chilling effect on free expression on campus, Independent Women’s Law Center (IWLC) is pleased to join with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to support Speech First’s lawsuit against the University of Illinois. 

Read the complaint in Speech First v. Killeen HERE.

Read IWLC’s brief in support of Speech First HERE.

Read more about free speech on campus HERE.