CHICAGO, April 5, 2005—Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) has warned the members of the College Republicans that both the students and the group will be punished if they hold a campus protest against affirmative action. The NEIU College Republicans canceled its planned “affirmative action bake sale” protest after NEIU’s dean of students warned them in an e-mail that to hold such a sale would violate NEIU’s “nondiscrimination” policy and expose the students to punishment. NEIU, which allowed a feminist group to hold a similar “pay equity bake sale” protest on campus, is the latest in a string of schools nationwide that have attempted to shut down these protests against affirmative action.
“You would think that universities would have learned that affirmative action bake sales are constitutionally protected,” remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has twice written to NEIU on behalf of the College Republicans. “In this case, NEIU’s disregard for its students’ First Amendment freedom of expression is made all the more severe by the university’s apparent double standards.”
The NEIU College Republicans originally planned to hold its “affirmative action bake sale” protest on February 25. Such protests have become a widely used form of political parody directed against affirmative action. Organizers typically display a menu with satirical prices charging black and Hispanic students less than Asian and white students for the same items. The “bake sales” are intended to spark debate about affirmative action policies, not to raise revenue. The College Republicans postponed the protest, however, after receiving an e-mail from NEIU Dean of Students Michael Kelly stating that the protest would violate the school’s nondiscrimination policy. Dean Kelly wrote that “[v]iolating University rules can and will result in charges being filed,” and that “any disruption of university activities that would be caused by this event is also actionable….”
The College Republicans immediately turned to FIRE for help. On March 8, FIRE wrote NEIU President Salme Steinberg, reminding her that “‘[a]ffirmative action bake sales’ constitute a form of satirical political protest, and therefore enjoy the fullest protection of the First Amendment.” On March 17, NEIU attorney Mark Dunn responded that the university was encouraging the students to explore alternatives to the bake sale protest. Dunn did not address NEIU’s threat to punish the students for their protected expression. FIRE replied to Dunn, insisting that the students be allowed to hold the protest of their choice. FIRE also pointed out that since the NEIU Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance apparently has held a “pay equity bake sale” protest (in which men are charged more than women for baked goods to protest the “wage gap” between men and women) on NEIU’s campus, it would be unlawful viewpoint discrimination to forbid the College Republicans from holding a similar protest. NEIU’s second letter to FIRE once again did not address FIRE’s concerns.
“NEIU’s position is simply indefensible,” noted FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Neither the feminist group nor the College Republicans were engaged in ‘discrimination’ with their protests. Both bake sale protests are forms of satire that are highly protected by the U.S. Constitution. NEIU must respect the free speech rights of all students even if it dislikes the message of a particular protest.”
NEIU is not the only school that has attempted to ban affirmative action bake sale protests. Last year, campuses across the country, including the University of California-Irvine, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the College of William & Mary, attempted to prohibit students from holding such protests. In all of these cases, FIRE intervened on behalf of student groups and successfully defended the constitutional right to hold nonviolent protests without administrative interference.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Salme Steinberg, President, Northeastern Illinois University: 773-442-5400;
Michael Kelly, Dean of Students, Northeastern Illinois University: 773-442-4610; firstname.lastname@example.org