ACLU sues IU over alleged First Amendment violations during campus protests

Protesters hold hands at Indiana University's Dunn Meadow demonstration on April 27, 2024. The ACLU of Indiana sued Indiana University Friday, saying it violated First Amendment rights by banning certain protesters from campus. (Jacob Spudich /The Indiana Daily Student)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana (ACLU) sued Indiana University Friday, claiming the Bloomington university violated the First Amendment rights of three protest participants after implementing a one-year campus ban. 

The three plaintiffs include: Jasper Wirtshafter, a Bloomington resident; Benjamin Robinson, a tenured IU-Bloomington German Studies professor; and Madeleine Meldrum, a current IU graduate student. Each was banned from campus for a year by the IU Police Department. 

Shortly following the ACLU’s announcement, a stay was granted to Meldrum. Robinson received a stay earlier this week but Wirtshafter did not. 

Madeleine Meldrum, a current IU graduate student, is one of three plaintiffs being represented by the ACLU of Indiana. (Screenshot from Zoom)

“There’s nothing more important to the ACLU than the ability of everyone to exercise their First Amendment rights, no matter the substance of the protest. The First Amendment exists for all citizens, all persons … (it’s) the bedrock of our democracy” said Ken Falk, the state ACLU’s legal director. “This is, when you think about it, ultimately an extremely undemocratic action by IU.”

Falk said the organization asked the court to find that the university couldn’t ban the freedom of expression for plaintiffs and to prevent IU from enforcing the ban along with potential damages. The suit specifically focuses on Dunn Meadow, where students have been gathering, which Falk said had “for 50 years been a forum of free speech.”

Meldrum said that collective action and advocacy were important to her but that the appeals process for lifting the ban was “a mess” and difficult to navigate on her own. 

“It’s been difficult the past week because I haven’t been on campus since last Thursday,” Meldrum said. “I’ve been able to see my friends and colleagues continue to use their voices knowing that, for some arbitrary reason, I’m not allowed to do that anymore.”

Falk didn’t rule out the possibility that others could be added to the suit but said it was the hope of the organization that IU would halt the practice. More than 56 protesters have been arrested at Indiana’s protests, a fraction of the 2,300 arrested nationwide

The complaint further details a rule change about temporary structures on Dunn Meadow drafted and enacted in private the night before demonstrations were slated to begin. Several participants have received “no trespass” orders specific to Dunn Meadow while other orders include the entire campus.

First Amendment claims

For the last eight days, students, professors and others have demonstrated in Dunn Meadow, a university-designated public forum, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and divestment in Israel. Tens of thousands have died — many of them civilians, children and aid workers — in Palestine throughout Israel’s military response following a Hamas terrorist attack in October. 

“I do feel a responsibility to humankind, quite frankly, to speak out against the genocide in Gaza, which is what we were there for, and band together with other people who also had similar beliefs and who also just couldn’t sit idly by and watch atrocities occuring,” Meldrum said. “It’s something that I’m passionate about and I believe, also, that there is strength in standing together with a group and being excluded from that group, again, is quite violating.”

After receiving a stay on her ban, Meldrum indicated that she would be returning to Dunn Meadow to continue protesting. She said the ACLU received the notice but that her calls and emails went unanswered.

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Protests have roiled campuses across the country, including IU and Purdue University — though the latter hasn’t yet reported any arrests. Protests have largely been peaceful in Indiana though many are critical of the state police response, which included snipers and state troopers in riot gear in Bloomington.

“I teach classes where I talk about the ordinances, public forums and the importance of universities, especially as … the laboratory of democracy,” Robinson said. “We’ve seen, historically, how expression on campus has really changed the country.”

Robinson said that in the appeals process, the police department referred him to the Office of Student Conduct — despite the fact that he had taught at IU for decades.

“As someone who has been very involved with due process on campus, it’s completely opaque to me what’s going to happen and obviously that’s a source of anxiety for me,” Robinson said.

In a call with the Indiana Capital Chronicle, Robinson acknowledged that recent legislative action to protect “intellectual diversity” could have its own ramifications on his academic standing. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill that would allow boards of trustees to dock faculty members for expressing personal views in the classroom, among other things, explicitly to protect conservative viewpoints on campus.

Dr. Benjamin Robinson, a professor of Germanic Studies at Indiana University and plaintiff in a lawsuit. (Screenshot from Zoom)

Robinson said he testified against the bill this winter — though it still passed and will be enacted this summer. Opponents said it would stifle the free speech for First Amendment rights of professors, especially through a new student complaint process that doesn’t even require students to be in a professor’s class to submit a complaint. 

“In the same moment, you’re told you can’t determine the criteria which you feel is appropriate for expressing scholarship and viewpoints in the classroom but you can express yourself freely outside of the classroom and in public forums,” Robinson said about the law.  

“Yet, at the same time, I receive a ban telling me that, indeed, I don’t have access to the historic public forums of IU,” he continued. “I do feel my tenure is at risk … I feel my speech chilled before I even have the chance to exercise it.”

For Meldrum, in her first year of a PhD program, she said she worried that having the ban “hanging over (her) head” could potentially interrupt her studies. 

“It’s pretty significant that they would be willing to go to such lengths and sacrifice their own academic reputation and our ability to engage in our academic careers just to keep us from using our First Amendment rights,’ Meldrum said. 

Criticism from conservatives

Prominent politicians and political hopefuls have denounced the protests and pushed for the restoration of “order” on campuses, including Gov. Eric Holcomb and gubernatorial contender Brad Chambers.

Chambers, in a press conference Friday, decried the “ongoing chaos and antisemitism” occuring on campuses.

“And as an IU alumnus, it is disappointing to see this hateful rhetoric and harassment has made its way to Bloomington,” Chambers said. 

He repeated claims of student chants taunting police and more, though most reports have called the protests peaceful.

“Let me be clear: I believe every Hoosier has the right to lawfully express their opinions. It is a fundamental right of being an American. But we cannot allow that right to be used as cover for trespass, intimidation or harassment of others,” he continued, criticizing his competitors for “be(ing) quiet.” 

“We must stand for law and order and ensure our educational institutions remain a place of learning free from intimidation and harassment, a place where ideas — not hateful rhetoric — can be freely and peacefully exchanged.”

This story has been updated to correct the timing of Robinson’s stay.

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