CHICAGO, April 8, 2005—In a victory for free speech on campus, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) has decided to allow the College Republicans to hold an affirmative action bake sale protest on campus with “no preconditions.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) received written confirmation of the change on Wednesday afternoon, less than 36 hours after publicizing NEIU’s unconstitutional threat to punish the College Republicans if they held the protest. At the same time that NEIU changed course, however, FIRE learned that Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Michigan was proceeding with plans to try the GVSU College Republicans on “discrimination” charges related to their bake sale protest.
“Universities often don’t like to defend in public what they do in private,” remarked David French, president of FIRE, which had twice written NEIU urging it to protect its students’ rights. “Though NEIU’s earlier intransigence forced us to go public, we certainly appreciate that NEIU moved quickly to restore First Amendment rights to its students. We call upon GVSU to do the same.”
In an April 6 e-mail to Brian Geier, a member of the College Republicans, NEIU Dean of Students Michael Kelly stated that he had discussed the situation with College Republicans President John Tait, and that Tait was “aware that the club can hold its bake sale without pre-conditions.” This stands in stark contrast to a February 18 e-mail from Kelly to Tait, which warned Tait that “[v]iolating University rules [by holding a bake sale protest] can and will result in charges being filed,” and that “any disruption of university activities that would be caused by this event is also actionable….”
In affirmative action bake sale protests, organizers typically display a menu with satirical prices charging black and Hispanic students less than Asian and white students for the same items. The “bake sales” are intended to spark debate about affirmative action policies, not to raise revenue. Feminist groups, including one at NEIU, have held similarly structured “pay equity bake sale” protests that seek to bring attention to the gap between men’s and women’s incomes.
“Considering that NEIU has allowed students to organize a pay equity bake sale on campus, allowing one sale and not the other would add unlawful viewpoint discrimination to a decision that already violated the First Amendment,” noted FIRE’s French.
While students won a victory for free speech at NEIU, students at GVSU await possible punishment this week for holding an affirmative action bake sale protest on March 21. At GVSU, complaining students charged the College Republicans with violating a variety of GVSU regulations, most having to do with “discrimination.” If today’s scheduled trial for the club goes forward and it is found guilty of these “offenses,” the group may lose its funding and recognition. FIRE wrote GVSU president Mark Murray to protest the upcoming trial.
“As FIRE has said many times before, affirmative action bake sales are a form of protest protected by the First Amendment,” stated FIRE’s French. “Accusing organizers of a one-day bake sale protest of engaging in discrimination is insulting to victims of real discrimination and willfully ignores the message of the protest.”
Unfortunately, under pressure from the upcoming trial and its accompanying threat of sanctions, the College Republicans chose on Monday to eject their current leadership and apologize for holding the event in the hope that the school would cancel their scheduled trial. FIRE’s information indicated, however, that as of yesterday the trial was still scheduled to take place.
FIRE’s French added, “The prospect of going through an unfair trial based on unconstitutional charges is extremely chilling to free expression on campus.” He concluded, “We encourage the GVSU College Republicans to stand against the university’s unconstitutional censorship.”
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 thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Salme Steinberg, President, Northeastern Illinois University: 773-442-5400;
Mark A. Murray, President, Grand Valley State University: 616-331-2100; email@example.com