UW policy tramples on free speech

November 23, 2005

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire dormitory resident assistant Lance Steiger wants to hold Bible studies in his dorm room on campus, but the school says he can’t. It cites the UW’s employment policy that prohibits resident assistants, who are university employees, from leading, organizing or recruiting students for activities such as partisan political events, religious studies or sales pitches.

The school says that students may feel pressured into attending the sessions so as not to offend the resident assistant whose duties include discipline in the dorms. The resident assistants get $675 a month in addition to free room and board and the university sees them as counselors to dorm residents. It argues that students may feel uncomfortable approaching the resident assistant if they don’t agree with the Bible studies or don’t attend.

What’s next? Are we going to prohibit resident assistants from discussing the Packers out of fear that not all dorm residents are rabid fans of the green and gold?

Steiger says he has free speech rights that the university is trying to squelch.

We agree.

There is no evidence that anyone was pressured or that anyone felt uncomfortable or that Steiger treated students differently based on whether or not they attended at Bible study.

Steiger is not representing the university when he conducts the sessions, nor is the university sanctioning the activity. All UW campuses allow freedom of expression on any number of issues — religious or otherwise — on campus and in campus buildings.

University President Kevin Reilly even notes that the UW System routinely makes facilities and even student funding available to student religious organizations. It would be foolish for the university system to do otherwise since one of the school’s founding tenets calls for the sifting and winnowing of ideas.

We can’t expect resident assistants to abandon all of their opinions, whether they are about religion, politics, sports, entertainment or the weather, just because someone might disagree with them or feel uncomfortable. We trust that the university is hiring people as resident assistants who are capable of dealing fairly with people who might not agree with them on any number of issues, religious or otherwise.

As a student of the Bible, Steiger knows that he must treat everyone equally.

As a concession to the school, Steiger has moved the study sessions from his room — which the university considers his office — to another location in the dorm. We don’t feel he had to do this, but we applaud him for his willingness to oblige.

The policy banning Steiger’s study sessions is not in writing, although the school says that all resident assistants are advised of it and it is made a condition of employment. However, even UW’s Reilly says implementation of the policy appears to vary from campus to campus.

State Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said Tuesday she won’t rule on the consitutionality of the ban.

Absent her ruling, we urge the University of Wisconsin to side with the First Amendment and drop its unclear, unwritten and seemingly arbitrary policy.

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Cases: University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: Ban on RAs’ Leading Bible Studies