UMass Amherst Student Government Has a Chance to Restore First Amendment Rights

By on April 15, 2009

The University of Massachusetts Amherst Student Government Association (SGA) has failed the First Amendment in almost every possible way by trying to punish a student organization for its protected speech in its March/April 2009 issue of The Minuteman. Tonight, they reportedly have a chance to undo the damage.

The organization in question, The Silent Majority, already has had virtually the entire recent press run of its newspaper, The Minuteman, stolen from around campus (and we have the video to prove some of it). The stolen issue criticizes another UMass Amherst student organization, Student Bridges, for its "reckless spending," and provides harsh words against its director:

Student Bridges claims to be a college preparatory pathway and tutoring program for low-income and minority children, but according to financial expenditure logs obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by The Minuteman, the organization spent thousands on frivolities, such as $10K worth of food during the 2008 Fiscal Year alone– including one shocking $2,100 tab racked up during a single night of revelry at Salsarengue Restaurant and Seafood in Holyoke.

In addition to food, Student Bridges blew an outrageous $7,954 on rental cars, $1,850 on hotels, $2,840 on bus transportation, and $1,918 on party supplies, t-shirts, and personalized promotional items.

[...]

The only thing more horrifically large than their bloated 172K FY2009 budget is the bloated backside of their responsibility-averse Director, Vanessa Snow.

Snow is also a member of SGA. Unfortunately, the SGA decided to try to punish The Silent Majority for its protected speech. On April 8, SGA passed a resolution that aimed to coerce an apology from The Silent Majority within two weeks. If the organization does not comply, SGA plans to punish it for "slanderous defamation of character" by completely derecognizing the organization.

Let us count the violations here: (1) coerced speech; (2) violation of freedom of the press; (3) violation of freedom of speech; (4) violation of freedom of association; (5) violation of due process (the last because SGA punished The Silent Majority in the form of a bill of attainder without holding any sort of hearing or giving The Silent Majority any chance to defend itself).

Last week we sent UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert Holub a letter pointing out that if SGA fails to redress these failures, UMass Amherst must step in and preserve these rights.

One praiseworthy SGA member, however, is trying to give SGA and UMass another chance. We have learned today that the following resolution will come before the appropriate legislative body tonight:

WHEREAS the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"

WHEREAS the courts have ruled that the requirements of the First Amendment inherently apply to agents of the government, individual states, and agents of individual states

WHEREAS the Student Government Association is an agent of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through its relationship to the University of Massachusetts Amherst

WHEREAS this relationship makes any act taken by the Student Government Association to regulate or limit freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble unconstitutional

WHEREAS the motion 2009-S53 contained language directly pertaining to the regulating of one or more of these freedoms

BE IT ENACTED that motion 2009-S53 is repealed

BE IT FURTHER ENACTED that within one (1) week of the passing of this motion the Student Government Association shall issue the following apology to the members of the Silent Majority in the form of a full-page advertisement in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian:

"We, the Student Government Association, apologize to the members of The Silent Majority and the staff of this RSO’s publication, The Minuteman, for any steps we have taken to infringe upon your constitutional rights.  While there are those among our ranks who disagree with the content that you chose to publish, it was immature and illegal to think that we could use our power to silence you.  We recognize that such unprofessional behavior, conducted without proper research, makes us, and the students we represent, look foolish in the eyes of the administration, the media, and prospective students."

BE IT FURTHER ENACTED that as a show of good faith and as an apology for several of its leaders stealing and hoarding copies of The Minuteman, the Student Government Association shall reimburse the Silent Majority, within the next seven (7) days, in the amount of $1,500.

BE IT RESOLVED that the Student Government Association asks the UMass Amherst Police Department to formally investigate any allegations regarding theft of copies of The Minuteman.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Student Government Association asks the Dean of Students Office and the Ethics Committee to formally investigate any allegations regard theft of copies of The Minuteman.

Rescinding the April 8 resolution would be enough for SGA to end its part in this shameful episode, but an apology would surely be nice, too. It is important to remember that SGA is free to strongly denounce language that it finds offensive, but not to punish it.

Schools: University of Massachusetts – Amherst Cases: University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Student Newspapers Stolen While Police Officer Watches University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Student Government Tries to Punish Conservative Newspaper