Earlier this week, Rhode Island College (RIC) settled a First Amendment lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) on behalf of an RIC student group, the Women’s Studies Organization (WSO). The settlement—which ends a dispute dating back to December 2005 over signs posted by the WSO and removed by RIC—requires RIC to pay $5,000 to the WSO, as well as $6,350 in attorney’s fees to the ACLU.
Specifically, the dispute began when the WSO posted signs bearing pro-choice messages near the entrance road to RIC’s campus. The signs were subsequently criticized by a visiting Catholic priest, prompting RIC President John Nazarian to order their removal. Represented by the ACLU of Rhode Island, the WSO then brought suit, alleging that removing the signs amounted to a violation of WSO members’ First Amendment rights, and that the existing policy prohibiting the posting of signs near the campus road was selectively enforced. FIRE affirmed its support for the suit last December, agreeing that “RIC’s selectively enforced sign policy is clearly unconstitutional” and noting that the school’s policy was “unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the college’s penchant for First Amendment violations.”
Significantly, the settlement also mandates significant changes to the school’s sign policy, as the Providence Journal describes:
The college has adopted what the ACLU described as a uniform policy regarding signs and displays on college roadways, and retains the right to limit the signs to giving directions to campus events.
However, according to the settlement, an event sponsor will have the right to dictate the name of the event and the supporting sign text. So a sign directing visitors to an event titled "Keep Your Rosaries Off Our Ovaries Forum" would be acceptable, explained Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU affiliate.
The policy requires that the directional signs be made by the college "to foster and maintain an uncluttered and attractive entrance to the campus." The policy, according to the ACLU, does not limit sign postings at other locations on campus.
Despite the settlement, however, RIC denies that the lawsuit presented First Amendment issues, instead labeling the dispute a miscommunication.” According to university spokesperson Jane Fusco, “Throughout the entire matter, the college has always supported the First Amendment rights of its students, and will continue to do so.”
While I’m pleased that the lawsuit has been settled to the WSO’s satisfaction, I must respectfully disagree with Fusco’s statement. As long-time FIRE supporters will no doubt remember, Rhode Island College has a consistently terrible record on First Amendment issues for its students and faculty. Just ask Professor Lisa Church, who was threatened with punishment from RIC for refusing to enforce the school’s unconstitutional speech codes (which earn a “red light” on Spotlight). Or ask Bill Felkner, a conservative master’s student who was required to advocate for political causes with which he disagreed in order to pass his classes—a clear violation of his freedom of conscience.
Sadly, despite the welcome news of this settlement, RIC has a long, long way to go before it can really claim to support the First Amendment on campus. As always, FIRE will be watching.