NEIU Legal Battles Continue

In recent years, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) has been associated in a number of legal cases and two in particular were addressed during the most recent Board of Trustees meeting.  On Nov. 8th, the Golden Eagles room was full of attendees who lined the walls and were informed about the latest Legal Counsel and Board Committee reports. News of the groundbreaking ceremony of the new El Centro campus building was shared with the Board of Trustees (BoT) and the campus police were commended for their improvement concerning bike thefts. However, many of the faculty and students in attendance were there to speak about the legal cases of Dr. Loretta Capeheart and Dr. John Boyle.

Dr. Loretta Capeheart

Freedom of speech and the case of Prof. Loretta Capeheart v. NEIU is still ongoing, but reached another milestone in Aug. 2012. NEIU lost an appeal in the 7th Circuit of the Federal Court which denied NEIU’s claim that the U.S. Supreme case Garcetti v. Ceballos applied to Capeheart’s situation.  Garcetti v. Ceballos,  is a decision by the Supreme Court that states that expression by public employees “pursuant to official duties” is unprotected by constitutional free speech rights.

In Sept. 2006, while on a panel at the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus, Capeheart spoke out about the lack of Latino faculty at NEIU. According to Capeheart, on Feb. of 2007 two students from the Anti-WarClub, were arrested for holding “a peaceful protest” during a CIA recruiting event. After the arrests, Capeheart defended the students during a Faculty Council of Student Affairs meeting.  According to the facts listed in the case of Capehart v. Terrell, former Vice President of NEIU Student Affairs, Melvin Terrell, responded by telling Capeheart that a student had filed stalking charges against her. According to Capeheart, Terell said “you should watch what you say.” It was later found that the student who wrote the letter of complaint had misidentified Capeheart and corrected her letter to list a member of the Socialist Club instead, according to Capeheart v. Terrell.

According to an article in the Illinois American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Capeheart filed suit towards the school administration in federal court for defamation, due to the allegations of stalking charges and for infringing on her right to free speech. In an interview with Capeheart on Nov. 8, 2012, she said she was denied a position as Chair of the Justice Studies Department and an academic excellence award as a result of the erroneous stalking charge leveled against her. However, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2006 Garcetti v. Ceballos case, Capeheart was not protected under free speech as an employee of a state institution. Garcetti v. Ceballos, is a decision by the Supreme Court that states that expression by public employees “pursuant to official duties” is unprotected by constitutional free speech rights.

The ruling led to her case being dismissed in Feb. 2011, but Capeheart filed for an appeal at the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. On June 19 2012, Capeheart’s suit was thrown out because the court ruled it violated NEIU’s rights under the Citizen Participation Act (CPA) which protects citizens from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) intended to intimidate whistleblowers or entangle private citizens in often costly legal battles to silence them. Because of this ruling Capeheart was liable for paying NEIU’s legal fees, an estimated $ 88,000. According AAUP, on Aug. 29 2012, the 7th court of appeals rescinded this ruling, arguing that she had brought her case to court too early, but freeing her from paying NEIU’s fees.

Dr. John Boyle

Even before Dr. John Boyle spoke during the public comment section of the Board of Trustees meeting, his presence was known throughout the room. Students and faculty wore green buttons with white lettering that said “Boyle!” in support of his case. John Boyle, a professor of linguistics whose expertise includes Native American languages has been denied tenure.

According to NEIU President Sharon K. Hahs, at NEIU, “Tenure has a set criteria and it has judgments that need to be made,” said Hahs. The University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) contract holds the criteria and processes for tenure. The three evaluation categories include primary duties, which include teaching and advising, research and creative activity and the third category is service. The standard for tenure is that in primary duties, one must be ranked “superior”; In research and service one must have performed “significant” work. To be approved for tenure which is usually a multiple year process, one must go through various levels of review. The first level of review is by the department faculty, the second is the department chair, then the Dean of the particular college, then the University Personnel Committee and finally the President along with the Provost.

According to the UPI contract, it is the president’s role to make recommendations to the Board of Trustees. In the case of Dr. John Boyle, President Hahs recommended to the board that Boyle not be granted tenure. “He did not meet some of the requirements in my judgment and that would be the only reason that he did not receive tenure,” said Hahs.

Boyle received positive recommendations from every other level of his review. According to Boyle, “It is highly unusual that a president would disregard the recommendations of the faculty, of the people who work most closely with that professor, the department, the Dean and just over turn it.” Boyle’s contract with NEIU will end next semester, but Boyle has stated that if he is not granted tenure, he will not be returning to NEIU. When Boyle discussed the option of court, he said, “Those kinds of cases are extremely difficult to win. Usually what you end up with is a monetary settlement and I’m not really concerned about monetary settlements. I would rather stay here and be given tenure and promotion.”