The University of Wisconsin (UW) System schools have had their share of problems when it comes to complying with the Constitution. In 2000, one of those problems made it all the way to the Supreme Court, in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000). This case was one of two landmark cases regarding student fees and viewpoint neutrality, yet in December 2004, FIRE found itself protesting not one but two Constitutional violations at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC), one of which was related to the very issue the Court had settled several years before! Recently, UWEC again became embroiled in controversy with its ban on resident assistants’ (RAs’) holding Bible studies in their dorm rooms. Both cases, as well as numerous other reports FIRE has received from students at UW schools, reflect a severe misunderstanding on the part of administrators when it comes to the First Amendment and a public university’s role in respecting its students’ rights.
But perhaps there is hope. The Duluth News Tribune ran an AP article on the committee formed by the UW System President Kevin Reilly to consider what sort of system-wide policies should be in place regarding RAs’ roles in political and religious activities. This, however, is not the hopeful part. All too often, FIRE’s cases stem from just such a policy gone awry. Usually, a single incident occurs, to which the university overreacts. Instead of addressing the one instance, the university institutes a campus-wide, or as in the UW case, system-wide ban that goes above and beyond what the original offense called for. So where is the hope, you ask?
The reason I remain optimistic is that despite UW’s apparent incompetence when it comes to understanding its role with regards to its students’ rights, some of UW’s students seem to understand just fine. From the Duluth News Tribune article:
Melissa Cichantek, student body president at UW-Stevens Point, said she has heard students complain of being pressured to attend Bible studies or weekly Campus Crusade for Christ meetings by their resident assistants. But she said such situations are so rare they are best dealt with individually.
I worry that an overarching policy would create more problems,” she said.
Indeed. Mark Twain once said that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. It is heartening to see a UW student doing the same.