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Free speech wins in new UW policy

March 8, 2006

University of Wisconsin President Kevin Reilly has proposed a reasonable policy on holding Bible study classes in the rooms of dormitory resident assistants. UW Regents should approve the proposal at this week’s meeting.

Reilly’s plan was developed after Lance Steiger, a resident assistant at the UW-Eau Claire, was told in July to stop the study sessions.

School officials felt that some students may feel they are being coerced into attending the sessions because the resident assistants are responsible for discipline and order and to refuse would put them at odds with the resident assistant.

The school said it had the right to limit Steiger’s use of the dorm because he is viewed as a counselor and receives free room and board and a monthly stipend to serve as a resident assistant.

The proposed policy says resident assistants “may participate in, organize, and lead any meetings or other activities, within their rooms, floors or residence halls, or anywhere else on campus, to the same extent as other students. However, they may not use their positions to inappropriately influence, pressure, or coerce student residents to attend or participate.”

Steiger maintained, and we agree with him, that he had a First Amendment right to free speech and the school’s unwritten policy sought to abridge that. And, absent any complaint from students about pressure to attend, we felt UW-Eau Claire was being a bit heavy handed in administering what was a vague policy.

Also, the UW System lacked a uniform policy from campus to campus, which left decision-making open to interpretation or have it applied arbitrarily.

If adopted by UW Regents, the policy will allow resident assistants to hold Bible study sessions and discussion meetings on other issues in the dorms, provided they exert no pressure on students to attend. It also requires those conducting the study or discussion sessions to exercise common sense in dealing with students who don’t want to participate.

Reilly’s plan proposes “an open, inclusive and supportive residential community” — a good description of a college campus.

It will be up to each UW campus to set up the procedure for implementing and monitoring the policy and dealing with any complaints about coercion.

Though the policy was developed over a religious issue, we’re glad to see Reilly and the UW acknowledging the right of free speech on other issues as well.

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