Despite Widespread Opposition, the URI Student Senate Defends its Position

By April 24, 2007

Ever since our press release last Wednesday, all eyes have been on the University of Rhode Island (URI) Student Senate, which voted to derecognize the College Republicans because they wouldn’t publicly apologize for advertising a satirical “scholarship” for white, heterosexual, American males.
 
FIRE and the URI administration have criticized the Senate’s position, and local and national media have seized upon the showdown over the unconstitutional sanction. Just today, the New York Post ran a piece by FIRE on URI. Over the weekend the ACLU even got involved, writing a letter to URI Student Senate President Neil Leston reiterating that the demand for an apology is unconstitutional.
 
Today FIRE received a letter from the Student Organizations Advisory Committee (SOARC) of the Student Senate, proving that overwhelming opposition from administrators, national legal experts, and a concerned public has done little to sway the committee from its unconstitutional demand for an apology.
 
The Senate letter starts by outlining SOARC’s view that the “scholarship” was not indeed intended as satire. It states that “the College Republicans, at the time of their advertisement of the scholarship, meant to distribute the scholarship in earnest, and that while the tone of the event was critical of political policy, was never meant in jest or for satirical purposes.” It has evidently escaped the Student Senate’s understanding that it was possible for the College Republicans to both intend to actually disburse the $100 and satirically protest race- and gender-based scholarships. The nominal $100 award placed the event alongside other similar protests, like “affirmative action bakesales,” that students routinely hold to bring attention to a disparity with which they disagree. The ACLU even made this point in its letter when it described the College Republicans’ “scholarship” as heir to popular protests by liberal and feminist groups that have successfully held events such as “pay equity bakesales” to criticize the gap in wages between men and women. In all of these cases, the intent to exchange money and the intent to satirically protest an issue are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, there is no legal obligation to label satire as such; it seems that the Student Senate is the only party not privy to the intended satirical nature of the College Republicans’ actions.
 
When the Student Senate informed the College Republicans that the “scholarship,” if disbursed, would violate URI’s anti-discrimination by-laws, the College Republicans agreed to not award the $100, concluding that they had successfully made their point without giving out the money. Realizing that the group never disbursed the money, but looking for a way to punish them nonetheless, the Student Senate has focused on the College Republicans’ act of advertising the “scholarship” in the student newspaper as grounds for derecognition. The Senate wrote, “[s]ince they had spent student tax funds to place the advertisement for the event, the violation occurred once the advertisement was paid for.” But the act of placing an advertisement is undoubtedly an expressive act, and one that the ACLU addressed in its letter: “[i]t is the position of the College Republicans that the publication of an advertisement for an unconsummated scholarship program does not violate the Student Senate by-laws requiring non-discrimination by student organizations. We consider this to be an eminently sensible position.”
 
Finally, in the last few paragraphs, the Senate’s letter addresses the forced apology. The Senate justifies the demand for an apology as a positive alternative to outright derecognition, writing, “while the default sanction on the table was revocation [of recognition], the committee sought to come to an acceptable alternative sanction that would allow the group the ability to continue to function but would still outline the seriousness of their violation.” The Senate here ignores the fact that the College Republicans were willing to accept other alternatives, such as publishing an explanation of their intentions and even having their activities for one year overseen by SOARC to ensure that no by-laws were broken in the future. The College Republicans refused only to publicly apologize.
 
And after all this time, the Senate still insists that it acted magnanimously in requiring an apology in lieu of derecognition, apparently not understanding that a forced apology is compelled speech. The letter states that agreement to issue the apology was “entirely the purview of the group to accept or decline; there is no force or attempt to compel a group to take such a sanction.”
 
But there is still significant force behind an ultimatum that requires a group to attest to beliefs it does not hold in order to avoid derecognition; a decision made under coercion is not a decision made in freedom. Indeed, the usual term for this kind of “choice” is “blackmail.” The Student Senate’s letter further sums up its ignorance of the constitutional issues at play here by saying that the College Republicans refused to apologize, “as is their right, rather absurdly accusing the Senate of attempting to compel their speech” (emphasis added).
 
Despite all the national attention, the directive from URI President Robert Carothers, and letters from FIRE and the ACLU, both of whom know a thing or two about the First Amendment, the Senate still denies that the forced apology is compelled speech—even worse, they call that argument “absurd.”
 
This letter does not bode well for the Senate’s upcoming vote on Wednesday. So far, SOARC has voted to derecognize the College Republicans, and at tomorrow’s meeting, the full Senate will vote on whether to uphold or overturn that derecognition. College Republicans President Ryan Bilodeau wrote letters to all the student senators this morning in an attempt to convince them once again to respect their constitutional obligations to protect free speech on campus. Bilodeau also addressed the presidents of other groups at URI, warning them that a reckless, rogue Student Senate is dangerous for all student groups. President Carothers has already implied that he will not let derecognition stand, and the College Republicans are prepared to wage a legal challenge if the derecognition is upheld. Hopefully, the Student Senate will act accordingly on Wednesday. We encourage you to share your concerns with the Student Senate by contacting Senate President Neil Leston (neil.leston@gmail.com) and the SOARC Chair Amanda LaRocca (amandaglarocca@gmail.com).