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University of Rhode Island President Forbids Student Senate from Imposing Unconstitutional Sanctions

The University of Rhode Island (URI) Student Senate has been looking for a way to punish the College Republicans for months. In November, the College Republicans advertised a satirical “White, Heterosexual, American Male” (WHAM) scholarship, and wanted to award $100 to anyone fitting those criteria who submitted an application and an essay on the adversities he’s faced because of his race, sexuality, nationality, and gender. The point was obviously to highlight and criticize scholarships awarded on the basis of these categories. Over 40 URI students applied, many writing equally satirical application essays.

On February 19, the Student Senate’s Student Organizations Advisory and Review Committee (SOARC) prohibited the College Republicans from disbursing the money. Since they intended the scholarship as political protest, the College Republicans believed that protest was already effective and agreed to not give out the nominal $100.

But the SOARC committee didn’t stop there. Even though College Republicans President Ryan Bilodeau agreed to not distribute the money, SOARC decided that even advertising the satirical scholarship violated URI’s anti-discrimination bylaws and demanded that the group publish an apology in the campus newspaper. Unwilling to publicly issue an apology, Bilodeau appealed this decision. The Senate denied that appeal.

In an attempt to inform the Student Senate about its constitutional obligations as a state actor, FIRE wrote to Senate President Neil Cavanaugh on March 13, stating:

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.

We also cited Justice Robert Jackson’s statement in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) that “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

The Student Senate, however, decided that they still did not have to recognize these constitutional obligations. In a memo to the College Republicans on March 27, the Senate used some considerably shaky reasoning to evade compliance with the Barnette decision.

FIRE wrote to URI President Robert Carothers the following day to urge him to intervene in the situation. FIRE wrote:

[T]he Student Senate acts as an authorized extension of the university. Just as URI cannot compel student speech, neither can its Student Senate. … 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.

But on Monday night, the SOARC committee decided that as a modified sanction, the College Republicans must write a letter of explanation in the student paper and write apologies to all of the students who applied for the scholarship. Believing still that they have nothing to apologize for, and noting that the majority of the applicants for the scholarship understood its satirical nature—and that not one of those applicants was himself asking for an apology—the College Republicans again refused to apologize. Bilodeau reports SOARC responded by threatening to withdraw funding for his group.

Finally, in a letter dated April 6, but delivered to the Student Senate just yesterday, President Carothers directed the Senate in no uncertain terms to drop its unconstitutional demand for an apology. Carothers wrote:

I must advise you that the action of the Student Senate to require the College Republicans to make certain representations that are clearly not their own … is a sanction that does not meet constitutional standards as laid forth in the First Amendment and in subsequent court decisions interpreting the standard. While the Student Senate is a separate corporate body from the University of Rhode Island, it still derives its authority and resources from the University and the Board of Governors for Higher Education, both of which are public bodies.

You are hereby directed, therefore, 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.

This bold statement from Carothers is exactly the response that FIRE hoped for. The Student Senate—a public body that derives its authority from the university—must recognize that it cannot forsake its constitutional obligations. Likewise, it is important for the university to realize that it cannot evade its constitutional responsibilities by delegating the right to punish students to as supposedly “independent” organization. While the Senate has not yet made a definite decision to drop the demand for an apology, both the URI College Republicans and FIRE hope that such a capitulation is imminent.

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