Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan outlines a lawsuit against Champaign-based Suburban Express Inc., alleging the transportation company discriminated against customers. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bus company faces civil rights lawsuit after email pitch slams Chinese students

They took a racial swipe at Chinese students who make up a significant portion of the University of Illinois and now Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says she wants to put them out of business.

On Monday, Madigan filed a a federal civil rights lawsuit against Suburban Express, a bus company that shuttles students between Champaign and Chicago.

Suburban Express touched off the political firestorm late last year by sending a promotional email to students traveling home during the Christmas holidays that proclaimed: “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

You’ll ride with passengers who are “like you” the ad stated.

During a press conference Monday at the Thompson Center, Madigan hammered the company and its owner, Dennis Toeppen, for a pattern of discrimination and harassment.

Besides the ad, she pointed to a video Toeppen posted online in which he offensively imitated an Asian accent and stated that English is not the primary language spoken at one U. of I. undergraduate dormitory.

He also would tell passengers to bone up on their English and ask why they would even want to attend the school if they didn’t speak the language, according to the suit.

Toeppen banned an Asian customer when he believed the customer couldn’t read English and directed an employee to “not bother” responding to emails or phone enquiries from people who speak broken English, the suit states.

The Champaign-based company operates at least 3 buses and 5 vans.

Toeppen, Madigan claims, also went to extreme lengths to ban and shame customers who posted negative online reviews of his company — sometimes encouraging university officials not to enroll them or potential employers not hire them. He also published online the credit card information, cell phone numbers, home addresses and email addresses of individual customers with whom he’s had disagreements.

Toeppen could not immediately be reached for comment. He did, however, apparently visit China late last year and posted dozens of photos from the trip on his company’s Facebook page — including several pictures of Chinese buses.

In a statement Monday, U. of I. spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the allegations in the complaint were “not surprising” since students have been reporting incidents to the school.

“Marketing efforts that are offensive, bigoted and insulting are in direct opposition to the values of the university,” Kaler said.

Investigators in Madigan’s office, after issuing subpoenas, found a private email in which Toeppen called portions of Chicago’s northern suburbs — home to many Jewish residents — “the land of no ham.” The lawsuit states that Toeppen banned ticket purchases from customers with billing addresses in certain zip codes that contain large Jewish populations.

At a news conference Monday detailing a lawsuit against Suburban Express, a bus company offering service to several regional universities, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan displayed printouts from the firm’s website that included offensive language

At a news conference Monday detailing a lawsuit against Suburban Express, a bus company offering service to several regional universities, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan displayed printouts from the firm’s website that included offensive language about promised customers they would ride with “passengers like you” and added: “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The website of Suburban Express, based in Champaign, allows users to search for bus service it offers to several Midwest universities, including U. of I. But a “statement of inclusion” appears only for those clicking on U. of I.: “All persons are welcome to ride Suburban Express. We do not discriminate on the basis of any individual’s race, color, sex, gender identity, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, military status, or source of income. You are welcome here.”

The emailed promotional ad was greeted by an immediate and predictable backlash from a U. of I. student body that has a significant portion of students from China.

Suburban Express and Toeppen — a U. of I. alum — responded by sending an “apology” that only made matters worse.

“We made a remark based on the fact that our competitor mostly handles Chinese international students. The remark is being interpreted as a slap in the face of all non-caucasians for some reason, and that (is) not how it was intended,” the company’s message stated.

The message then offered a sweeping condemnation of U. of I. admissions policies that, the company claimed, favor students from outside the U.S.

“U. of I. mismanagement over the past few decades has put them in a financial bind. To solve the problem, they admit large numbers of international students who pay higher tuition. Nearly 20 percent of U. of I. students are natives of China. This percentage of non-native English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students,” the company wrote.

“We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable. But, we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder. In any event, we did not intend to offend half the planet.”

The bungled mea culpa prompted Toeppen to send a second apology to the Daily Illini and to university officials.

In it, Toeppen said the promotional email was “ill-advised” because it “upset the very people we were sad to have lost” to a competitor. He also apologized for the tone of the first apology.

“Suburban Express welcomes students of all nationalities on our buses. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to further their own agenda. We apologize for our insensitive statement, and we hope to do a better job of unifying the campus community in the future, from our office in the heart of campus town,” Toeppen wrote.

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