PROVIDENCE, R.I., April 18, 2007—Displaying a dramatic disregard for students’ constitutional rights, a committee of the University of Rhode Island (URI) Student Senate voted on Monday to derecognize the College Republicans student group. For months, the Student Senate has demanded that the group publicly apologize for advertising a satirical $100 “scholarship” for white, heterosexual, American males. The College Republicans refused to apologize and contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. FIRE is now calling upon URI President Robert Carothers, who has already informed the Senate that it could not compel student speech, to reverse the decision to derecognize the group.
“Neither the Student Senate nor anyone else at URI has the power to force the College Republicans to say things against their will,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “As bad as it may be to tell people what they cannot say, it is still worse to tell them what they must say. The Supreme Court has long recognized that compelled speech is not compatible with free societies. It is stunning that URI’s student government would show such contempt for fundamental rights, especially after URI’s own president explained it to them.”
The College Republicans student organization first advertised the satirical “White, Heterosexual, American Male” “scholarship” in November, 2006. The scholarship consisted of a nominal $100 to be awarded to someone fitting those criteria who submitted an application and an essay on the adversities he has faced. College Republicans President Ryan Bilodeau explained that the point was to use satire to protest scholarships awarded on the basis of race, gender, or nationality. Over 40 URI students applied for the “scholarship,” many submitting equally satirical application essays.
In a meeting on February 19, the Student Senate’s Student Organizations Advisory and Review Committee (SOARC) prohibited the College Republicans from disbursing the money. The group agreed that it would not give out the $100, but 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 apologize, Bilodeau appealed SOARC’s decision. The Senate denied that appeal.
FIRE wrote to Senate President Neil Cavanaugh on March 13, stating that because the Student Senate derives its authority from a public university, it must comply with the First Amendment prohibition on compelled speech. The Student Senate, however, in a memo to the College Republicans on March 27, ruled again that the College Republicans must publish an apology and claimed authority to force them to do so. That sanction was later reduced to an “explanation” to be published in the campus newspaper and a mandatory apology to be sent to all of the students who applied for the scholarship.
The College Republicans agreed to publish an explanation of its intentions, but refused to write any apologies. FIRE wrote to URI President Robert Carothers the following day to urge him to intervene in the situation. FIRE wrote, “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.” And in a letter dated April 6, President Carothers did indeed instruct the Senate in no uncertain terms to drop its unconstitutional demand for an apology. Carothers wrote that the mandatory apology “does not meet constitutional standards as laid forth in the First Amendment and in subsequent court decisions interpreting the standard.”
But at a meeting on Monday night, SOARC nonetheless unanimously voted to ignore both its constitutional obligations and Carothers’ directive and derecognize the College Republicans for refusing to issue an apology. SOARC’s decision will be voted on by the entire Student Senate on Wednesday, April 25.
FIRE wrote another letter to Carothers yesterday calling upon him to immediately reverse SOARC’s decision to derecognize the group. FIRE wrote that “[b]y fulfilling this responsibility as a public official, you can teach the Senate leadership that they must respect the rights of URI students and help to instill in them an understanding of the full repercussions for repeatedly and recklessly defying the Constitution.”
“URI’s student government thinks it is above the law—that it can take fees extracted from students by a state university and yet ignore the constitutional obligations that come with them. It is sadly mistaken,” Lukianoff said. “President Carothers must act now to stop this rogue organization from conducting these unlawful acts under the aegis of the university.”
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 universities across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Robert Carothers, President, URI: 401-874-2444; firstname.lastname@example.org
Neil Leston, President, URI Student Senate: 732-693-2111; email@example.com
Amanda LaRocca, Chair, URI Student Organizations Advisory and Review Committee (SOARC): 516-330-6142; firstname.lastname@example.org