Mascot opponents awarded damages in suit against Illinois college
By The Associated Press
PEORIA, Ill. Five Chief Illiniwek opponents were granted $1,000 each this week by a federal judge who agreed they suffered damages from a University of Illinois policy regulating contact with athletic prospects.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm made the decision July 22 after spending the day hearing testimony from the four UI professors and one former graduate student. The plaintiffs, who believe the school's mascot is racist and degrading to American Indians, said they asked for $1,000 each because the amount was enough to be noteworthy without being a financial burden on the school.
"I feel vindicated. This has been a very long-fought battle," said physics professor Philip Phillips. "We feel as though there is finally some closure to this part of the chief controversy."
The five were among a group who, through the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the university last year over a policy imposed by Chancellor Michael Aiken.
In his policy, announced after mascot opponents revealed plans to contact athletic recruits and urge them to choose other schools, Aiken ordered that students or faculty clear any proposed contact with recruits through the athletic department. He said he was worried about potential recruiting violations.
In May, Mihm granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, ruling that Aiken's policy constituted an illegal prior restraint on free speech and could not be enforced. Mihm also denied Aiken's request for immunity from damages.
Mihm had issued a temporary restraining order in April 2001 barring the university from enforcing Aiken's policy. Aiken rescinded the policy two months later.
This week's trial dealt only with the issue of damages.
Professor Stephen Kaufman, a leader in the anti-Chief Illiniwek movement, testified July 22 that all plans to contact recruits were dropped until after the matter was resolved in court.
"I felt that a gag order had been issued for the purpose of thwarting dissemination of information to prospective student-athletes about the controversy," he said. "I also felt the university did not want anything but their perspectives placed before the student-athletes."
Since the policy was overturned, Kaufman said, he and others have sent letters about the years-old controversy to about 100 prospects.
Former graduate student Cydney Crue testified the policy made her afraid her anti-chief actions could get her thrown out of school. She said she never tried to clear any communication through the university.
"I did not want to be targeted by the athletic department or the board of trustees," she said.
Mihm said he believes the plaintiffs suffered some distress and were damaged through not being able to freely communicate during the month the policy was in effect.
University attorney William Brinkman said the school, which has never admitted liability in the case, may appeal the $5,000 in damages.
ACLU attorney Adam Schwartz said he was satisfied with the outcome.
"This is a victory not just for these plaintiffs, but for anyone who wishes to communicate free from punishment by the government," he said.
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