Satiric scholarship creates First Amendment firestorm

April 27, 2007

For scores of college students across the nation, the next few weeks of spring will constitute a countdown to summer recess. Between preparing for finals and cleaning out dorm rooms, one would think that the nation’s collegiate youth would be limited in the amount of free time on their hands. One would be wrong.

As a number of college students prepare to sit down and take a written examination on the history and meaning of the First Amendment, students at the University of Rhode Island (URI) are learning firsthand about censorship and government disregard for civil liberties. On Wednesday, under a great deal of pressure from URI administrators, civil rights activists and the Constitution, the URI Student Senate voted to defeat a measure that would have derecognized the URI chapter of the College Republicans.

“I am thrilled that the URI Student Senate finally reached a reasonable and lawful resolution,” stated Ryan Bilodeau, president of the College Republicans. “As an organization, we are pleased to be able to continue to be a voice that challenges the status quo on campus.”

And while such a vote was music to the ears of the College Republicans, the vote came after many months of campus infighting and blatant disregard for First Amendment freedoms.

The controversy at URI began in November 2006 when the College Republicans, in order to make a political point, advertised a satirical “White, Heterosexual American Male” scholarship. The scholarship’s application was one page and asked applicants if they were white, heterosexual, American and male.

If applicants answered “yes” to all four questions, they were then asked to write a short response explaining what it means to be a white, heterosexual American male and to describe the adversities the applicant had overcome. The winning applicant would receive a $100 scholarship.

After getting wind of the satirical scholarship, some folks over at the URI Student Senate did not take kindly to the College Republican’s use of conservative humor. In February 2007, the Student Senate’s Student Organizations Advisory and Review Committee (SOARC), in light of URI’s anti-discrimination policies, issued a proclamation forbidding the College Republicans from distributing the $100, a measure the College Republicans agreed to. SOARC, however, then went a step further.

On top of forbidding the distribution of scholarship funds, the government body ordered the College Republicans to publicly apologize for advertising the satirical scholarship. The College Republicans refused and immediately contacted the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil rights group dedicated to preserving free speech on America’s college campuses.

Upon hearing of the URI situation, Tara Sweeney, FIRE’s senior program officer, wrote a letter to Neil Cavanaugh, URI Student Senate President, informing him that the Student Senate could not legally force an apology from the College Republicans.

“Demanding that the College Republicans publish a SOARC-approved apology in the student newspaper is an unconstitutional punishment, as it forces the College Republicans to engage in public expression with which they disagree,” wrote Sweeney.

“Along with the right to speak freely, the First Amendment protects speakers from being compelled to make statements against their will. While the Student Senate may halt an action it sees as violating university policy, no governing body at an American institution of higher education may lawfully force students to make statements in which they do not believe.”

Bilodeau, too, had since explained that the point of the scholarship was to use satire to protest scholarships awarded on the basis of race, gender or nationality. The organization argued it was trying to making a political point. Bilodeau further noted that more than 40 URI students submitted applications for the scholarship and a vast majority of the essays submitted were also satiric.

Nonetheless, when the College Republicans appealed SOARC’s initial decision, SOARC opted to ignore the First Amendment and deny the appeal, thus reaffirming its mandate that the College Republicans apologize for advertising the scholarship. In a letter written to Bilodeau from Matthew Yates, SOARC Chairman, the College Republicans were told that it had to write a letter to the editor to the URI newspaper and the letter must be approved by SOARC.

Upon receipt of Yates’ decision, Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, penned a letter appealing to the sensibilities of URI President, Robert Carothers.

“Simply put, demanding that the College Republicans publish a SOARC-approved apology in the student newspaper is an unconstitutional punishment, as it forces the College Republicans to engage in public expression with which they do not agree,” wrote Lukianoff.

Lukianoff then threw down a gauntlet, writing, “As leaders in institutional governance, models for the Student Senate, and the ultimate authority in disciplinary matters, URI administrators have a legal duty to step in where the Student Senate has failed and to check its attempt to trample upon students’ most basic freedom of conscience. Make URI’s practices governing student organizations consistent with the U.S. Constitution, by which the university is legally and morally bound; require the Student Senate to abandon its requirement that the College Republicans publicly apologize for advertising its scholarship.”

Carothers heeded Lukianoff’s advice and immediately issued a memorandum to the Student Senate in which Carothers ordered, “You are hereby directed … that you may not impose any sanctions on the College Republicans, or any other student group, that requires them to make public statements which are not their own.”

Despite the letters from FIRE and the directive from Carothers, SOARC decided to march forward with its demand for an apology. When an apology was not forthcoming, SOARC recommended to the full Senate that the College Republicans be derecognized, which, if approved, meant the group would lose access to university funds, meeting space, etc.

In response to SOARC’s decision, Lukianoff argued, “URI’s student government thinks it is above the law—that it can take fees extracted from students by a state university and yet ignore the constitutional obligations that come with them. It is sadly mistaken.”

SOARC, however, did not have the last word and its recommendation had to be approved by the full Senate prior to enforcement.

Wednesday’s vote by the URI Student Senate to defeat the measure derecognizing the College Republicans put an end to this constitutional crisis on a relatively picturesque New England campus. And even though this marked a happy ending to a sad story, the folks at FIRE are still cautiously optimistic.

“While the Student Senate finally reached the right conclusion in this matter, this crisis should have never reached this level,” explained Lukianoff. FIRE argues that URI must train students elected to positions of power so this type of behavior is not repeated.

“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,” asserted Lukianoff.

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