Ozzie Guillen just became the latest person from the world of sports to find out that free speech isn’t necessarily free. The Miami Marlins manager gave the offhand political opinion to Time magazine that he “respects” Fidel Castro for staying alive the last sixty years. He then found himself swamped in the attendant right-wing hysteria and was suspended for five games without pay; his job is still hanging in the balance. I know that people will say the First Amendment is solely about the government’s not restricting the rights to speech, but the idea that we don’t have the basic freedom to voice ideas that might offend our employers is both chilling and all too familiar in the world of sports. Guillen joins athletes like Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Rashard Mendenhall, Toni Smith and many others as high-profile cultural object lesson for everyone in the country: shut your mouth and don’t rock the boat.

Both the irony and urgency should be obvious. The space where we can reasonably be heard is becoming constricted exactly at the moment when people are beginning to break out of their shells. We have seen both the Occupy movement and the national struggle to win justice for Trayvon Martin present a new willingness to fight. Attacks on speech are efforts to strangle that impulse in its crib. That’s what makes the legal case of Northeastern Illinois University Professor Loretta Capeheart so critical for anyone who cares about freedom of speech and the ability for us to actually be able to shape our surroundings without fear.

Capeheart is a tenured professor at NEIU, perhaps the state of Illinois’s most affordable and diverse institution of higher learning. She is also a vocal union and anti-war activist of many years standing. Understandably, anti-war students sought her out as a group-adviser during President Bush’s war on Iraq. When two students were arrested for peacefully protesting a CIA recruitment station, the weight fell on Capeheart. School President Sharon Hahs denied Capeheart merit raises and department chair positions and attacked her in public meetings. Hahs also threatened students and other faculty, saying that everyone better be ready to “accept the consequences” for their actions.

Capeheart, despite the absence of any financial banking, went deeply into debt and took her case to court. After a four-year legal battle, a federal judge just ruled that he agreed with NEIU’s lawyers. He said professors have no right to free speech under the Supreme Court’s hideous 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case that denied public employees the right to criticize their superiors. But as awful as the Garcetti decision was, the High Court made clear in a footnote that their decision shouldn’t apply to academic settings. The judge in Capeheart’s case disagreed and gave not just Sharon Hahs and NEIU but every school license to crack down.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said that the judge’s ruling “is chilling and clear: university administrators need not tolerate outspoken faculty dissent on matters of broad public concern or on the university’s institutional response to those concerns.”

Now Loretta Capeheart, despite being $100,000 in debt, has made the difficult decision to appeal the ruling and if necessary take her case to the US Supreme Court. We should join Center for Constitutional Rights director Michael Ratner and professor Noam Chomsky and support these efforts. It’s not just the principle of solidarity or the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all” that should compel us to stand alongside her. It’s the reality that the defeat of Professor Capeheart will, as sure as night follows day, be used to destroy whistleblowers and truth-tellers on campuses across the country. It will isolate students attempting to organize for change and create atmospheres of fear and mistrust, making a mockery of the notion of universities as citadels of free debate and expression. Given the occupy movement’s challenge to the status quo and the casual tear gassing of students at UC Davis last fall, the need to feel fearless has never been more critical. The defeat of Loretta Capeheart is about the institutionalization of fear.

Professor Capeheart in a recent speech, gave the issue context. She said,

A recent news report exposed that two former vice presidents at NEIU are “double dipping” by taking six-figure retirement incomes at the same time that they continue to work at NEIU, earning six figures here as well. Will faculty be allowed to speak against this perceived abuse of the retirement system, student resources and state dollars? Or will the university claim that such speech is…punishable? The university is spending untold dollars to assure that they can impose the latter. Don’t question, don’t engage, just agree. We must fight these abuses and take back our rights to speak.

Sports, of course, have not been strangers to scandal on college campuses. Consider the serial cover-ups by officials at Penn State over accused child predator Jerry Sandusky. Or think about University of Notre Dame where a recent investigation revealed that female students who accused players on the football team of sexual assault received horrible treatment at the hands of school officials, which may have been an aggravating factor in a 19-year-old’s suicide.

Now imagine a world where Penn State professors would be fired for speaking out on the Sandusky case. Or consider an adjunct denied tenure for raising questions about the way sexual assault victims are treated at Notre Dame. The stakes are high. If it’s true that change will only come from below, we should recognize that the powers that be at NEIU want to take the ground out from under our feet. It’s time to stand with Loretta Capeheart because silence is not something any of us can afford.

For more information about how you can help, visit http://justice4loretta.com/