PHILADELPHIA, March 11, 2008—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has successfully intervened to protect the rights of student groups at New Jersey’s Montclair State University and Central Washington University (CWU) after student governments at both universities threatened to de-fund the groups for engaging in constitutionally protected expression.
“These two cases—on opposite sides of the country—are disturbing examples of the willingness of student governments to punish their fellow students for their expression,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Both cases had happy endings this time, but how many other students and groups suffer such assaults on their liberty in silence? Student governments need to understand that, just like college administrators, they may not control student expression simply because they control the purse strings.”
At Montclair State, the Student Government Association (SGA) froze funding to the student newspaper, The Montclarion, in retaliation for the paper’s attempts to gain access to closed-door SGA meetings. Meanwhile, at CWU, the College Republicans were investigated and faced possible loss of funding after they posted flyers promoting an on-campus speech by controversial illegal immigration opponent and Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist.
Following an extended dispute between Montclair State’s SGA and The Montclarion over the lack of press access to closed meetings, SGA President Ron Chicken declared that the paper’s funding would be frozen on the first day of Montclair State’s Spring 2008 semester. An SGA employee even contacted the paper’s publishing company and instructed it to halt future production of The Montclarion.
FIRE wrote a letter to Montclair State President Susan A. Cole on February 26, with copies to the SGA leadership, denouncing the SGA’s actions and calling on Montclair State’s administration to intervene and defend freedom of the press. FIRE received a reply from Vice President Karen L. Pennington on February 29 stating that the SGA had restored all of The Montclarion‘s funds and promising that “the administration will work with both groups to create an independent status for The Montclarion so that this type of incident can not reoccur.”
At CWU, the Associated Students of Central Washington University’s Board of Directors (ASCWU-BOD) held a hearing to investigate stripping funding for the College Republicans’ activities after they promoted Gilchrist’s speech by posting flyers that read in part that “illegal immigration is ruining America.” ASCWU-BOD officials denounced the flyers as creating a “hostile environment” in a letter to the College Republicans and asked the Services and Activities Fee Committee to “review” the group’s funding for present and future programs.
FIRE wrote to CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre on February 27, with copies to relevant ASCWU officials, reminding them that the ASCWU could not, consistent with its First Amendment obligations, investigate a group for engaging in protected expression. FIRE noted that the flyers in question did not approach the level that the Supreme Court has defined as a “hostile environment,” despite the allegations of the ASCWU-BOD. After receiving FIRE’s letter, the CWU Services and Activities Fee Committee declined to revoke the College Republicans’ funding or impose any sanctions against the group.
“Both Central Washington University and Montclair State University ultimately did the right thing by not punishing these groups for their protected speech,” Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, said. “But administrators and student governments alike need to understand and respect students’ rights on campus so that these appalling attempts to stifle student expression never occur in the first place.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Samantha Harris, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan A. Cole, President, Montclair State University: 973-655-4212; email@example.com
Jerilyn S. McIntyre, President, Central Washington University: 509-963-2111; McIntyreJ@cwu.edu