NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
After months of debate within the UW System with students, citizens, administrators, politicians and lawyers weighing in, the controversy concerning the activities RAs can lead in their residence halls has come to a close.
On Friday, the UW System Board of Regents unanimously voted to support a policy proposed by UW System President Kevin Reilly which guarantees the right of RAs to contribute to, organize and lead meetings and other activities anywhere on campus as long as they do not use their leadership positions to coerce students into participating.
“I think it’s a good, sound policy and I’m glad that it’s in writing and will apply equally to all System campuses,” Rep. Rob Kreibich, R-Eau Claire, said.
This new policy was developed after Reilly organized the RA Working Group to examine the existing rules on all UW campuses, Christopher Semenas, a member of the Board of Regents, said.
He added that, since the Board approved the decision, it will go into effect immediately.
Senior RA Lance Steiger tipped off the dispute last summer when he received a letter from Associate Director of Housing Deborah Newman saying he must discontinue leading Bible studies in his room, according to a Nov. 7 article in The Spectator.
Steiger later contacted FIRE, an organization which deals with individual rights, which tried to convince UW-Eau Claire to suspend the policy through a letter to Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson on Oct. 10, according to the article.
When this did not achieve the results he and FIRE wanted, Steiger filed a lawsuit through the Alliance Defense Fund challenging the policy, according to a Dec. 5 Spectator article.
Kevin Theriot, the ADF attorney on Steiger’s case, said the suit would stand unless a permanent school policy was adopted to guarantee RAs the right to freely exercise their beliefs in their places of employment.Steiger could not comment if the lawsuit would have a new status after the Board’s decision, because of his legal counsel.
Senior Dawn Snyder, an RA in Oakridge, said she supported the rules which restricted RA activities since she thinks they were in the best interest of students.
Now that the Board has decided to prohibit such regulations, she said the responsibility to keep things fair lies in the development of a mechanism for students to bring up concerns about their RAs’ actions.
“I understand (the Board members) are trying to avoid legal repercussions,” Snyder said, “but it’s very, very important that they stress in RA training that ethically, (leading activities) is not the best choice.”
According to a Board press release, Reilly said each UW campus would be required to develop a process so students can complain if they believe an RA is violating the new policy.
In addition, RAs who are in training would have to be cautioned about not using their power to coerce residents into ideological meetings, according to the press release.
Kreibich said the problem with the previous policies was that they were unwritten and only selectively enforced.
He said it was important to develop consistency across the entire System so that students are not forced to surrender their First Amendment rights at some campuses, citing discrepancies between the guidelines at Eau Claire and UW-Stout.
“Today marks a great victory for the thousands of students enrolled in the UW System. President Reilly and the Board of Regents should be commended for coming to the correct conclusion,” U.S. Congressman Mark Green, R-Green Bay, said in an official statement Thursday.
Green has taken an active stance against the rules which restricted RA activities over the last few months, according to the press release.
Chuck Major, the Director for Housing and Resident Life, could not be reached for comment.Download file "Regents pass RA proposal"