Twin Victories At Central Washington, Montclair State as First Amendment Trumps Student Government Censorship

March 11, 2008

FIRE is very pleased to announce two important victories for free expression this afternoon at Montclair State University and Central Washington University (CWU).

At both Montclair State and CWU, student government was attempting to stifle the speech of organized student groups, a clear violation of the First Amendment. As Greg makes clear in today’s press release, the incidents serve as “disturbing examples of the willingness of student governments to punish their fellow students for their expression.”

At Montclair State, the student government cut off funding for the student newspaper, The Montclarion, in an attempt to punish the paper for seeking access to closed-door student government meetings. At CWU, the student government held a hearing to explore the possibility of leveling sanctions against the CWU College Republicans after the group posted flyers advertising an event featuring controversial illegal immigration opponent Jim Gilchrist. The flyers stated, in relevant part, that “illegal immigration is ruining America.”

In response, FIRE wrote letters to the Presidents of both Montclair State and CWU, informing each that their legal responsibility for ensuring the constitutional liberties of their students could not be abdicated to their respective student governments. As FIRE wrote to Montclair State President Susan A. Cole:

[The Student Government Association of Montclair State University has] blatantly overstepped [its] bounds in seeking to punish The Montclarion for publishing articles critical of the SGA and making use of counsel approved by previous actions of the SGA. As president of a public institution, you cannot and must not allow these actions to stand. FIRE calls upon you to immediately clarify The Montclarion‘s status as an independent newspaper. As leaders in institutional governance, models for the SGA, and the ultimate authority in disciplinary matters, MSU administrators have a legal duty to step in where the SGA has failed and to check its attempt to trample upon students’ most basic freedom of press. By fulfilling this responsibility as a public official, you can teach the SGA leadership that they must respect the rights of MSU students and help to instill in them an understanding of the full repercussions for repeatedly and recklessly defying the Constitution.

Similarly, FIRE informed CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre that because it receives mandatory student activity fees from the student body, CWU’s student government is just as bound by the Constitution as the school itself:

To be clear: the Associated Students of Central Washington University (specifically, the Services and Activities Fee Committee) is authorized to allocate portions of the mandatory student activities fee paid by CWU students. Due to the power vested in it by CWU as a public institution of higher learning, it is clear that the ASCWU is an agent of CWU and is thus morally and legally bound by the United States Constitution.

As such, ASCWU should not investigateand cannot lawfully penalize, including through funding decisionsstudents for engaging in expression that is unquestionably protected by the First Amendment. CWU has a duty to uphold the First Amendment rights of all of its students, even if their expressive activity offends the sensibilities of some.

After FIRE’s intervention, both situations were resolved in ways consistent with the protection of free expression on campus. While FIRE is certainly glad that the situations at both Montclair State and CWU have been resolved satisfactorily, we will continue to remain vigilant when it comes to defending the fundamental liberties of students on public campuses, even in the face of investigation or intimidation by student government officials with little recognition of their constitutional obligations.

Schools:  Montclair State University Central Washington University

Cases:  Central Washington University: Student Group Faces De-funding for Protected Expression Montclair State University: Student Group Faces De-funding for Protected Expression