WZRD Defends Free Speech and Saves Freeform Radio at NEIU

This is the second part of a two-part post recognizing WZRD. See the previous post commending the station for 40 years of freeform radio.


On its website, WZRD (88.3 FM), operating from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, describes itself as “being completely student-run, non-commercial, and unapologetically Freeform.”

These are points of pride, declarations that have been hard-won, as, recently, Wizards, current and former, united to successfully resist an attempted university restructuring.

On June 29, 2012, after presenting accusations of FCC non-compliance, of fiscal misconduct, and of inappropriate, discriminatory conduct, the Director of the Office of Student Leadership Development (SLD aka Student Activities) placed the student organization on inactive status and locked out station staff. NEIU had seized control.

John Wilson, editor, American Association of University Professors, writes in Academe, “It was an act of censorship without due process that ignored NEIU’s policies, violated the First Amendment, and broke a state law protecting freedom of college student media.” (“The Shutdown of WZRD at NEIU,” October 28, 2012)

Further, Wilson notes, “The College Campus Press Act is absolutely clear in its language and breathtakingly broad in its scope: “All campus media produced primarily by students at a State-sponsored institution of higher learning is a public forum for expression by the student journalists and editors at the particular institution. Campus media, whether campus-sponsored or non-campus-sponsored, is not subject to prior review by public officials of a State-sponsored institution of higher learning.”

The take-over came at a time when both the state and the university were facing increased economic shortfalls; and students, who faced tuition increases, saw the lock-out as the culmination of a larger strategic plan to better appeal to corporations, coinciding with the school’s decision to upgrade its business school.

Tension had been building for years and was, club members assert, heightened by policy changes imposed by recently-hired administrators in the Office of Student Leadership Development (aka Student Activities Office). Previously, the station had refused to fundraise for planned renovations to the Student Activities Office, arguing that the demand violated station policy. And then, in 2009, the university moved to exclude community members, alumni, non-degree seeking students, and most part-time students from the station, making WZRD, members noted, “the only university station in Chicago that does not allow community membership” and imposing restrictions particularly unreasonable for a commuter school. Ongoing financial and FCC filing inconsistencies were discovered by club members. Members noted growing rumblings of a university coordinated assault on their right, granted by charter, to set both club policy and format; accusations of exclusionary membership practices were made.

Dale Lehman, WZRD’s News Director, says, “Kelly Donovan, who was Program Director elect, was about to challenge some budget expenditures that had not been authorized by the club. Kelly, who had had many years in business and the ability to make sense of a budget, had the necessary research skills and determination to discredit the accusations.”

Freeform programming was replaced by automated music programming and, in some hours, by students hired by the SLD.  The university, in its documents, claimed that the student organization was “currently under university review” and that the station’s future “would be decided following a search for a different programming format.”

In response, Wizards organized. The newly formed WZRD Freeform Defense Collective prepared an exhaustive, point-by-point response to the accusations. And, Lehman says, “The club’s charter protected our right to the format and policies chosen 35 years prior.”

As Wizards in Exile, DJs hosted shows on other area stations, printed newsletters, and publicized their plight in the local press.

A series of hearings ensued, many of which evaded the university’s established legal processes in favor of a jerry-rigged parallel process staffed by students. Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, noted, “One way to tell you’re being punished in violation of due process is that they invent the process after they tell you you’re being punished.”

By November 2012, with student resistance still strong, the university began seeking to reinstate club members with certain university pre-conditions imposed. Station members refused.

Wilson notes that the most extraordinary pre-condition was “a requirement that WZRD’s bylaws and constitution must include “a statement of civility and decorum on how the actions of DJs and other members will be treated within the club to be compatible with the community standards as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct.”… So, even though NEIU doesn’t have a Code of Conduct that imposes “civility and decorum,” NEIU administrators are saying that WZRD must compel “civility and decorum” in its bylaws and constitution in order to comply with the NEIU Code of Conduct, and that violators of civility will be punished by the administration. This is one of the strangest ways I’ve ever seen a college administration attempt to impose a blatantly unconstitutional speech code on a campus.”  (“The Civility and Decorum Police at NEIU, and the Continuing Shutdown of WZRD,” November 9, 2012, blog of Academe magazine)

WZRD collective member Peter Ali Enger states that the conditions were “unacceptable, as none of the vague accusations mentioned in various pieces of paper issued by unknown entities at NEIU have been found to have any substance, nor has anyone at WZRD been found guilty of any transgressions of policies or student conduct rules at NEIU. Therefore there is no reason to demand or request any changes in WZRD student organization bylaws, policies, or application and training procedures.”

Then, finally, in January 2013, six months after the lock-out was imposed, WZRD members were declared not to have been in violation of either University policy or their bylaws and charter. All charges were dismissed, and the station was returned to student control. There was no institutional acknowledgement of the university’s own policy violations.

Ellie Nitu, who became Assistant Program Director upon the station’s return to student control, says, “We’ve come back stronger. We have won back community and alumni involvement since the lock-out. And relationships with the university have improved.”

Lehman says, “Originally, community members were key participants; after all, the founding students conceived of WZRD as a community station. When the university excluded community members, the station lost continuity of knowledge and long-term interest.”

In the community at large, WZRD’s victory and endurance have been praised. The New City newspaper named WZRD Chicago’s #1 college radio station and took note: “While too many other college stations shun controversy and imitate the commercial outlets, WZRD marches to its own trippy drummer, and seeks to serve the community. More power to it.”

WZRD is a 100-watt, non-commercial FM, freeform radio station, operating from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Our assigned frequency is 88.3 MHz. We are dedicated to loudening up a quiet corner of Chicago’s northwest side, and serving the greater community.

Information for this article came from interviews with Dale Lehman, WZRD News Director, and Ellie Nitu, Co-Program Director; from The Wizard Newsletter (Volumes 1 and 2); from various documents produced by Wizards and by Northeastern Illinois University; from the WZRD website; and from Wikipedia.