A women's group at Rhode Island College is suing the school, saying its free speech rights were violated when campus police took down signs bearing the message "Keep Your Rosaries Off Our Ovaries."

The Women's Studies Organization posted the signs near a campus entrance last December to coincide with a day of activism for women's rights. But police removed the signs within a few hours after a priest on his way to conduct a weekly Mass observed them and alerted the president of the public college, the students said.

The president, John Nazarian, then ordered the signs taken down, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of the students by the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The issue is this is a public university, and a public university can't abridge anyone's free speech rights — including the students," said Jennifer Azevedo, an ACLU volunteer attorney.

The group had been negotiating with the college over the signs in the past year, but had been unable to resolve the problem and decided to sue, said Nichole Aguiar, the organization's president and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The complaint seeks damages and asks a judge to declare the college's acts unconstitutional. It also challenges a recently enacted policy on campus signs that the group complains is selectively enforced.

The college said in a statement it could not comment because it had not seen the complaint but added that it respected and encouraged free speech by the entire campus community.

"It is this robust exchange of views and ideas that provides our students with the opportunity to grow and learn and take advantage of the full college experience," the statement said.

An anti-abortion student group at the college, RIC 4 Life, released a statement Monday calling the signs from the women's organization offensive and disrespectful. It said it would continue working "to educate the RIC community about the gift of life."

The signs were part of an event that was planned amid complaints that some pharmacists had refused to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception because of personal convictions, Aguiar said.

After police removed the signs, the complaint says, Nazarian told the students there was additional approval required and that only college-made signs were allowed in that location. But the students say they had previously been told they had all the necessary clearance, and that the entrance area had been used over the years to display a variety of signs and messages.

The students again tried to hang the signs last winter and spring. The college denied their request in February and on several subsequent dates, according to the complaint. After the dispute became public in March, a school spokeswoman said the signs were not permitted in the place the group wanted to put them and that there were ground rules for signs that all student groups needed to follow.

In September, the college adopted a formal policy that generally restricts signs from being posted at the college's entrances, the complaint says. But critics say the policy is not being evenly enforced since campaign signs promoting political candidates were posted there during election season.

"It's certainly inappropriate to say certain types of issues are OK for signs and others are not," said local ACLU executive director Steven Brown.