This Month in FIRE History: Student Senate Attempts to Compel Speech

By on April 30, 2010

In April of 2007 at the University of Rhode Island (URI), the future of the College Republicans was in jeopardy. The group had advertised a "scholarship" that satirically protested scholarships awarded on the basis of race, gender, or nationality. The advertisements for the "WHAM Scholarship," short for White Heterosexual American Males, were posted as a joke during "Conservative Coming Out Week" and were never actually awarded.

The Student Senate decided that the political commentary violated URI’s anti-discrimination bylaws, and the College Republicans were told to either publicly apologize or face derecognition.

When the Student Senate refused to take back this punishment, FIRE urged URI president Robert L. Carothers to intervene. Appropriately, President Carothers told the Senate that its demand for an apology "does not meet constitutional standards as laid forth in the First Amendment" and directed that "you may not impose any sanctions on the College Republicans, or any other student group, that requires them to make public statements which are not their own."

After the president’s directive and much media scrutiny, the Senate voted to drop the mandatory apology and allowed the College Republicans to remain on campus.

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said at the time:

Neither the Student Senate nor anyone else at URI has the power to force the College Republicans to say things against their will. As bad as it may be to tell people what they cannot say, it is still worse to tell them what they must say. The Supreme Court has long recognized that compelled speech is not compatible with free societies.

Schools: University of Rhode Island Cases: University of Rhode Island: Student Senate Attempts to Compel Speech