Today, FIRE went public with the case of the University of Rhode Island College Republicans, who face derecognition by the URI Student Senate because they refuse to apologize for offering a satirical $100 scholarship to white, heterosexual, American males. You can get everything you need to know about this shameful episode out of today’s press release and Tara’s blog, but I want to draw a bit more attention to the unusual twist in this case: the fact that the Student Senate is defying not only the First Amendment but also URI President Robert Carothers, who has informed them (correctly) that they cannot force the College Republicans to say anything against their will.
In our press release, FIRE is calling on President Carothers to put a stop to this nonsense, tell the College Republicans their recognition is safe, and show the Student Senate that governing bodies at public colleges are not above the law. Carothers has yet to do so, but he seems to have a pretty good understanding that what the Student Senate is trying to do won’t pass legal muster. FIRE ally Professor David Ross e-mailed Carothers shortly after he received our press release, and Carothers responded with the following thoughtful missive:
Mr. Ross, To clarify things, a committee of the University’s Student Senate has voted to take the action you describe. They have done this despite my admonition that this action violates first amendment rights. I have specifically told them that this action cannot stand. The full Student Senate, however, will vote next week on whether to uphold these actions.
Under Rhode Island law, the Student Senate is a separate corporate entity from the University. Their lawyer has argued that they are not compelled to recognize directives from the University president. He has also argued that the Senate is not a public entity and not bound by the same constitutional requirements that bind the University. The Student Senate exists and is funded, however, under the colors of the University and its Board of Governors, both public entities. It is my opinion both as the president and as an attorney that the Student Senate is a public entity as well.
That being said, however, like most campus controversies, this one creates an opportunity for the student community to learn, in this case to learn more about the right to dissent and the right of free speech. These “teachable moments” should not be avoided. We should allow the students here some time to resolve this on their own. However, in the end, we cannot grant any group with power the ability to ignore the fundamental rights of individuals or groups to free speech. Were I to attempt to prevent any student or group of students from speaking what they believe, then I too would be in violation of our most basic principles as a nation. This is equally true of the University’s student senate. If there is anything that a university community stands for, it is the right to open debate and discussion of any ideas, no matter how unpopular or distasteful they may be at the moment.As you might imagine, I am receiving many e-mails like yours. I cannot answer them all, but I see you have copied an extensive list and so wanted to respond to you.
A few things are worth noting in this response. First, Carothers says “I have specifically told them [the Student Senate] that this action cannot stand.” This is very good news and is commendable, but it needs to be backed up with action. Second, the Student Senate’s lawyer, whoever he or she is, seems to be quite, well, let’s use the word “confused” about the organization’s constitutional duties. The argument that the Student Senate is not a public entity and not bound by the Constitution is ridiculous. Imagine the reaction if a company that runs privatized prisons were to respond to complaints about brutality to prisoners by saying “We’re not a public entity and we’re not bound by the constitutional requirements about the treatment of prisoners.” That argument would rightfully be scorned and the company disciplined.
If you are performing a state function by governing university student groups at a public university with money from mandatory student fees, I have some news for you: you’re bound by constitutional requirements, even if you think you have hit on some way to make an “end run” around the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court (see the Rosenberger and Southworth cases). FIRE has repeatedly made clear that in cases like this, a university cannot deputize another organization to perform the unconstitutional “dirty work” in which the university cannot itself engage.
Carothers seems to understand this, but it’s not necessary for him to put off safeguarding the First Amendment rights of the College Republicans until the Student Senate as a whole issues a final vote to violate the U.S. Constitution. The College Republicans have already endured two months of threatened compulsory speech at the hands of a group of students with no apparent regard for the law, leaving them in a limbo that has harmed their organization and its members by taking up enormous amounts of time that otherwise would have been used in issue advocacy or (imagine this) studying. It is doubly problematic because it has also been clear from the very beginning that the College Republicans simply could not lawfully be punished for refusing to say something they don’t believe.
President Carothers should act now by telling the College Republicans flat out that any vote of the Student Senate that would derecognize them for refusing to issue a forced apology will be null and void and have no effect. FIRE would further remind URI that denial of constitutional rights for any length of time constitutes an irreparable harm to those affected that can give rise to liability in a civil rights lawsuit. It’s time for President Carothers to put an end to the lawless adventures of URI’s irresponsible Student Senate.