In a three-page letter, the ACLU of Rhode Island has called on members of the Roger Williams University Student Senate to halt continuing efforts to punish the College Republican club for its free speech activities. The ACLU was contacted by the club earlier this week in response to introduction of a Senate resolution that would revoke the club’s charter for its awarding of a $250 “whites only” scholarship as a political statement by the Club about affirmative action. The resolution was narrowly defeated on Wednesday, but the club fears the issue may be brought up again. In its letter to Student Senate President Erin Bedell, the ACLU called the Senate’s “efforts at censorship” both “counter-productive and inimical to the critical goal of any university in promoting wide-ranging, robust and uninhibited speech.”
Only last week, the Senate voted not to censure the Club, concluding that its scholarship offer constituted free speech. The new resolution, however, claims that once the scholarship was actually awarded, the activity ceased to be speech, but became illegal “political action” deserving of punishment. Calling the notion of “discriminatory” political action troubling, the ACLU letter noted that “political action forms the essence of freedom of speech.”
The resolution also claims that the club’s actions violated the Senate’s “Commitment to Student Equality Act,” which states that clubs “will operate fairly and objectively without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, political ideology, national origin, handicap or age.” The problem, said the ACLU, is that a number of clubs on campus would, of necessity, fail this test. The letter cited students clubs like Hillel, which describes itself as “serv[ing] the needs of the Jewish community”; the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which “is a mix of Christians from all denominations . . . that share a common faith”; the Multicultural Student Union, which “provides leadership development for cultural minorities on campus”; and the “Society of Women Engineers.” The ACLU letter said: “One cannot sincerely argue that these clubs operate ‘objectively without regard to’ race, gender, religion, etc. Nor should one expect them to. Perhaps the College Republican club and its counterpart, the College Democrats, are the perfect examples of the flaws in this well-intentioned act. How can overtly political clubs like those be expected to operate ‘without regard to political ideology’?”
The ACLU concluded its letter by stating: “It is a truism, but one worth repeating, that the cure for ‘bad’ speech is not its censorship, but instead the exercise of ‘good’ speech by others. So it is with this controversy. We hope that Student Senate members will reconsider their actions and agree with this approach.” The letter was signed by RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown and Bridget Longridge, who founded an ACLU chapter at the law school last fall.