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Blogging Professors Can Bring Free Speech Claims Against University

If caustic blogs were a knife in the back, a battle between faculty and administration may have stabbed the deepest at Chicago State Univeristy.

The struggling university, which laid off 300 employees last year due to budget cuts, is facing a lawsuit that could be the final blow. Professors Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz sued school officials for violating their free speech rights and for retaliation.

In Beverly v. Watson, a federal judge says the professors may continue their case. While it champions freedom of speech, however, it's also a tawdry tale.

Sex, Lies, and Blogs

The professors started the CSU Faculty Voice in 2009 for faculty members to blog about their personal opinions. It became a problem in 2013 when then- President Wayne Watson confronted Beverly about "the tone of posts on the CSU Faculty Voice and why the blog did not adhere to generally accepted 'civility' standards.'"

According to court records, the confrontation stemmed from blog post that reported "Watson's girlfriend had falsified her application for employment at CSU." It escalated from there, with a cease-and-desist letter from the executive counsel and threats of legal action.

In the lawsuit, the professors claim university officials set out to punish them for their blog posts. Among other efforts, the complaint says, Watson tried to convince another school vice-president to make a sexual harassment claim against Beverly.

"Watson told me that he needed my help in the fight and advised me to file a lawsuit for sexual harassment against Beverly based on Beverly's visit to my office," LaShondra Peebles reportedly said. "I told Watson that I did not feel threatened or harassed by Beverly's conversation."

Cease-and-Desist Liability

In denying the university's motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall concluded that there were sufficient facts to proceed to trial. Among other factual disputes, she considered the professors' claim against the executive counsel for retaliation.

The judge said the attorney was doing her job when she investigated whether the professors violated university policy. The plaintiffs had offered no evidence that she retaliated against them in her investigation.

However, Gottschall said, the attorney may be liable for the cease-and-desist letter. A jury could find that it was a form of retaliation.

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