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ACLU Brings Suit Against Rhode Island College

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island today announced the filing of a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island College (RIC), contending that the school’s sign policy is unconstitutional.

Specifically, the suit alleges that the college violated the First Amendment rights of the Women’s Studies Organization (WSO), a student group at RIC. According to the ACLU’s press release, exactly one year ago campus police acted on the request of RIC President John Nazarian and removed signs expressing support for reproductive rights posted by the WSO. The signs, located near RIC’s entrance road, were noticed by a priest driving onto campus to conduct a mass at Nazarian’s home. The priest mentioned the signs in his service, prompting Nazarian to order them removed.

This past September, the school formally announced a restriction on posting signs near the entrance road to the campus; however, the lawsuit contends that other student groups—and even RIC itself—regularly post signs in this restricted area, with no enforcement of the new policy. The lawsuit asks for the court to declare both the sign policy and the removal of the WSO’s signs unconstitutional.

This is not the first time RIC has been accused of censorship and First Amendment violations; FIRE has fought for the individual rights of RIC students and faculty in the past. In May 2005, FIRE defended Bill Felkner, a conservative graduate student at RIC’s School of Social Work, who was informed by a professor that he would be required to publicly advocate for “progressive” social changes in order to receive his advanced degree. In August 2004, FIRE advocated on behalf of Dr. Lisa B. Church, an RIC professor who was punished for refusing to censor the constitutionally protected speech of mothers at a school-sponsored daycare clinic.

FIRE fully supports the ACLU’s lawsuit, and agrees that RIC’s selectively enforced sign policy is clearly unconstitutional. Indeed, a quick perusal of RIC's speech code, as reviewed by FIRE’s Spotlight, suggests that the new sign policy is unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the college’s penchant for First Amendment violations. RIC’s speech code has earned the school a “red” rating, indicating that it both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech on campus.

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