MADISON, Wis., March 1, 2006—The University of Wisconsin (UW) System is poised to restore the First Amendment rights of its student resident assistants (RAs). UW campuses at Madison and Eau Claire currently have policies banning RAs from leading Bible studies in their dormitories, but a newly proposed policy would repeal them. This move comes after months of pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“This proposed policy is precisely what FIRE requested and what the First Amendment demands,” declared FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff. “We call upon the regents of the UW System to enact it as quickly as possible.”
The policy, proposed today by UW System President Kevin P. Reilly, recognizes and protects RAs’ right to “participate in, organize, and lead any meetings or other activities, within their rooms, floors or residence halls, or anywhere else on campus, to the same extent as other students.” The policy must be approved by the UW Board of Regents at its meeting later this month and is a vast improvement over the recommendations of a committee Reilly convened earlier this year. FIRE condemned that committee’s report in January and successfully urged concerned citizens to do the same.
The controversy in Wisconsin began last year when Lance Steiger, an RA at UW–Eau Claire (UWEC), contacted FIRE. Steiger reported that a university administrator had sent him and other Christian RAs a letter ordering them to stop leading Bible studies in their dormitories. This ban—which also applies to Torah or Koran studies—came despite the fact that the studies were fully voluntary and were done on the RAs’ own time and in their own rooms. UWEC’s rationale for the ban was that RAs who led Bible studies might not be seen as “approachable.”
On October 10, 2005, FIRE wrote UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson to ask her to lift the “Bible study ban” on her campus—but to no avail. FIRE then took UWEC’s repression public on November 2 and issued a subsequent statement on November 14, resulting in a nationwide outcry. The controversy was covered in newspapers across the Midwest, as well as on Fox News Channel, on countless radio programs, and in USA Today.
At one point, UWEC attempted to claim that RAs were not allowed to lead any ideological activities whatsoever. FIRE pointed out that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the university had publicly praised an RA for leading an official dorm production of The Vagina Monologues in 2004, and UWEC’s own job description for RAs obliges them “[t]o help organize and promote educational, recreational, social, and cultural activities that the students want and need.” FIRE also reported that a similar “Bible study ban” is in effect at UW’s flagship Madison campus. UWEC suspended its ban on November 30, pending a system-wide review. If the UW Board of Regents approves Reilly’s proposed policy, RAs’ religious liberty will be protected at all UW campuses.
Along with publicly exposing UW’s restrictions on RAs’ rights, FIRE wrote to Reilly as well as to Wisconsin Attorney General Peggy A. Lautenschlager to defend expressive rights on campus. FIRE also connected Steiger with attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, who filed a lawsuit on his behalf.“
After months of mistakes and stonewalling, UW has finally done something right,” Lukianoff noted. “We dearly hope the Regents will do what their obligation to the Constitution demands and approve this policy.”
The UW Board of Regents next meets on March 9 and 10.
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 at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire can be viewed at thefire.org/uwec.