Illinois AG investigates if bus company violated human rights act with offensive ad

CHICAGO -- Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is investigating a Champaign area-based bus company that recently sent out an email ad some thought disparaged Asians.

Madigan's office said Monday it subpoenaed Suburban Express to determine if the company violated the Illinois Human Rights Act after it told riders in an ad that they "won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses."

The University of Illinois called the email "bigoted" and Madigan expressed concerns that the ad by the company that serves University of Illinois students "may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers."

Of the 44,000 students enrolled at the school, as many as 5,900 are from China -- about 13 percent.

"These types of racist and bigoted statements attacking any members of our community deserve nothing but condemnation from all of us," the university said in a strongly worded statement.

There was no answer at the Suburban Express office Monday night and the Chicago Tribune couldn't reach the company's owner for comment. On its Facebook page, the company apologized.

Suburban Express posted this statement to its Facebook page Sunday evening. It was removed sometime before Tuesday morning. Here's the full text:

Suburban Express welcomes students of all nationalities on our buses.

Suburban Express was founded in 1983 by a sophomore U of I student who was dissatisfied with transportation options on campus -- schedules, equipment quality, driver attitude, and other attributes. Since the founder was a student, he knew exactly what students needed and wanted, and he took on Greyhound and other companies and won.

Suburban Express grew and grew, and the University of Illinois grew and changed. As the University changed, Suburban Express services changed. Computerized ticketing, automated ticket machines, and then Internet ticketing were introduced -- before other companies even considered them.

Along the way, Suburban Express encountered cheaters who cost Suburban Express and its customers thousands of dollars -- bad check writers, people who reverse credit card charges for services they used, people who made and used counterfeit tickets. Suburban Express believed that it would be doing a disservice to the world if it did not hold the budding new adults who cheated it responsible for their actions.

Suburban Express has therefore consistently held students to their commitments and promises. This approach has not been popular with cheaters. With the advent of social media, a small number of cheaters have the ability to amplify their complaining and anger, and convince other cheaters that they have been wronged. Suburban Express has received many black eyes over holding students to their commitments and promises.

In 2013, an employee of a subcontracted bus company made an inappropriate comment to a non-english-speaking customer. We agreed that the comment was inappropriate and we promptly apologized. Nevertheless, a student agitator made it his full-time job to tell the world that Suburban Express is racist based on the comment which we agreed was inappropriate, and for which we apologized. He filed a lawsuit against Suburban Express and went so far as to convince Highland Park Police to arrest the founder, for online comments which the agitator himself may have posted. The judge in the matter, who found the founder not guilty, essentially stated that she had no reason to believe that the agitator had not posted the comments himself.

Unfortunately, the 2013 episode caused many students from countries in Asia to abandon Suburban Express and ride a competing company. We were very saddened by the loss of those riders. We meant them no harm, and we felt we were being unjustly punished.

When we wrote a recent promotional email, we mentioned that Suburban Express riders would not encounter Chinese exchange students on our buses. That's because they all ride our competitor now. It was an ill-advised statement to make, because it upset the very people we were sad to have lost.

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 campustown.


Suburban Express posted this apology late Monday night.

Here's the full text:

Suburban Express Email Apology

On December 2nd 2017, Suburban Express sent out an email discount promotion with offensive and inexcusable remarks concerning Chinese exchange students. It was incredibly inappropriate and harmful. We fully apologize and accept all responsibility for our actions. We have been made aware of the Illinois Attorney General's investigation of our practices as well as Alderman Pawar's call for a hearing. We are working to cooperate with both, and others, to fully respond to and rectify this situation. It is our company's mission to provide safe, reliable, and fair transportation for all students. We will work endlessly to ensure this.

The initial comment made, "Passengers like won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses." was grotesquely xenophobic in nature. There is no benefit, by any measure, to excluding any demographic and we apologize for this indefensible statement. Further, the emailed apology which followed was also harmful insofar as it tried to excuse a wrongfully nationalist statement. The sarcastic tone and disagreement with the University of Illinois' inclusive practices are just as offensive and wrong and we apologize with great shame.

We are looking forward to working with all students, organizations, and Illinois officials on this matter. Your responses as a community have inspired us as a company to not only expeditiously make amends, and appropriately apologize without excuse, but to relaunch our company's conduct completely. Although we have never prevented any student of any demographic from boarding our bus simply because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender orientation or nationality, the comments made have created the image that Chinese exchange students are not welcome, and we are striving to change this.

As this year concludes and a new year approaches, we invite all people to work with us and take this incident as an opportunity to get to know us as we work hard to reform our practices. We will strive to work swiftly and professionally to make amends and to adhere to the highest standards of conduct from this moment forward. We only hope you can trust this will never be repeated, and that we will only do better in the future with all students and customers.
Thank you.

WLS-TV contributed to this report.

CNN contributed to this report.
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