Victory for Freedom of Expression at the University of Rhode Island

April 26, 2007

PROVIDENCE, R.I., April 26, 2007—In a meeting last night, the Student Senate of the University of Rhode Island (URI) voted against a proposal to derecognize the College Republicans, holding that the group need not apologize for advertising a satirical white, heterosexual, American male “scholarship.” This decision overturns last week’s Student Senate committee vote to revoke the College Republicans’ official recognition after they refused to apologize for advertising the “scholarship.” Heeding pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), national media, URI’s administration, and a concerned public, the Student Senate finally acknowledged its constitutional obligations with last night’s vote.
“Preserving the College Republicans’ recognition and revoking the demand for an apology is the only acceptable decision that the Student Senate could have made,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Everyone following this case seemed to understand that no public governing body may lawfully compel speech. We are relieved that the Student Senate finally came to that same realization.”
As FIRE reported on April 18, the College Republicans advertised their “scholarship” in November 2006, during “Conservative Coming Out Week,” in order to satirically protest scholarships awarded on the bases of race, gender, or nationality. Even though the College Republicans never awarded the “scholarship” to anyone, the Student Organizations Advisory and Review Committee (SOARC) decided that just advertising the award violated URI’s anti-discrimination bylaws. The committee directed the College Republicans to either publicly apologize or face derecognition, which would deny the club the ability to reserve meeting space or apply for funding.
Despite a letter from FIRE informing the Senate of the constitutional ban on compelled speech and a directive from URI President Robert Carothers to drop the mandatory apology, SOARC stood by its decision and voted on April 16 to derecognize the College Republicans. In the wake of that decision, local and national media, URI administrators and alumni, and individuals from across the country have spoken out against the mandatory apology. On April 19, the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU got involved, writing a letter to Senate President Neil Leston reiterating the constitutional prohibitions on compelled speech. Nonetheless, as late as April 24, SOARC defended its position in a letter to FIRE, calling the claim that the apology represented unconstitutional compelled speech “absurd.”
Yet last night, the full Senate never even voted on SOARC’s proposed derecognition because the Executive Committee voted 6-5 against the bill before it reached the Senate floor. In lieu of derecognition, Student Senate President Neil Leston proposed a bill calling for the College Republicans to issue explanations of their intentions to the approximately 40 students who applied for the “scholarship.” The new bill also provides that the Senate will serve in an advisory role to the College Republicans for one year to ensure that the group abides by URI’s bylaws. No longer compelled to say something they do not believe, the College Republicans are satisfied with these provisions. The Senate passed Leston’s bill and is expected to release a statement on its decision.
“I am thrilled that the URI Student Senate finally reached a reasonable and lawful resolution,” College Republicans President Ryan Bilodeau said. “As an organization, we are pleased to be able to continue to be a voice that challenges the status quo on campus.”
“While the Student Senate finally reached the right conclusion in this matter, this crisis should have never reached this level,” FIRE’s Lukianoff said. “President Carothers needs to clarify where the Student Senate’s powers begin and end. Student senators must understand their constitutional and moral obligations. Unless these issues are addressed, it’s only a matter of time before a similar situation arises again at URI.”
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 universities across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org
Robert Carothers, President, URI: 401-874-2444; muskrat@uri.edu
Ryan Bilodeau, President, URI College Republicans: 401-374-7963; chairman@urigop.org
Neil Leston, President, URI Student Senate: 732-693-2111; neil.leston@gmail.com

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