Last week on The Torch, FIRE’s Will Creeley explored the legal and practical issues surrounding a decision by the University of Houston Student Government Association (SGA) to suspend its vice president, Rohini Sethi, in response to her Facebook post: “Forget #BlackLivesMatter; more like #AllLivesMatter.” On August 5, the SGA announced on Facebook that Sethi’s suspension has been lifted and the SGA’s judicial branch would review whether the bill that authorized the suspension violated the SGA’s bylaws.
As Will deftly explained, Sethi’s post is unquestionably protected by the First Amendment. But this isn’t the typical FIRE case of a university punishing a student for her speech or a student government unlawfully withholding student fees from a recognized student group. In fact, the University explicitly stated that it would “stand firm in support of free speech and does not discipline students for exercising their Constitutional rights.”
Instead, the SGA’s sanctioning of Sethi for her speech is problematic because it is inconsistent with SGA’s own rule that it “shall take no action abridging the rights, immunities and privileges granted to students under the Constitution of the United States of America.”
“Perhaps just as lamentably,” Will wrote last week, “the SGA has chosen to privilege punishment over dialogue, teaching fellow students that the answer to speech with which one disagrees is top-down punishment, not grassroots persuasion, conversation, and, ultimately, education.”
In SGA’s statement, Sethi said she is voluntarily taking a number of steps to “re-earn [the] trust” of the student body, including taking a leave of absence until the start of the new semester and participating in a diversity leadership workshop. In the same letter, Student Body President Shane Smith has reaffirmed the importance of the First Amendment and urged his peers to continue learning through “open and honest discussion.”
Any students with the authority to sanction others should take care to understand and abide by the rules that bind them, from the U.S. Constitution to the bylaws that students have created for themselves. If they do so, students can achieve the ideal result—avoiding even temporarily chilling speech.
FIRE is glad to see that at least in this case, the SGA recognized its error and reversed course before the start of the new school year.