University of Rhode Island Student Groups Duel Over Free Speech

Among other rights, the First Amendment protects satire and parody as a form of free speech.

But the Student Senate at the University of Rhode Island appears to have lost its sense of humor when it comes to the campus group College Republicans.

Earlier this week, a Student Senate committee recommended revoking the College Republicans' recognition as a school-sanctioned group because the group refused to apologize for a satirical advertisement that offered a $100 scholarship to a white, heterosexual, American male.

The advertisement ran last November in the student newspaper, the Good 5 Cent Cigar. Forty students applied for the scholarship, but it was not awarded to anyone because it was not meant to be serious, said Ryan Bilodeau, chairman of the College Republicans.

"We intended that the scholarship was a satirical protest on the [University of Rhode Island's] many scholarships based on race and gender," said Bilodeau, a junior majoring in political science and philosophy. "We never distributed the money. They are punishing our expression."

The ad was meant to be satirical and no applicants complained, Bilodeau said.

Nonetheless, the Student Senate demanded that the College Republicans issue a written apology. The group declined, but offered to publish an explanation of the advertisement.

According to a report in the student paper, URI President Robert Carothers has ordered the student government to end its efforts to get an apology from the College Republicans.

Click here to read the report.

In a memo sent to the governing body Carothers said, "You are hereby directed, therefore, that you may not impose any sanctions on the College Republicans, or any other student group, that requires them to make public statements which are not their own."

Still, the Student Senate is set to vote on the committee recommendation Wednesday. Senate President Neil Leston wouldn't offer his position on the issue, but said he hoped to reach a positive resolution.

A free speech group has also jumped into the debate, offering to help the College Republicans and calling on Carothers to reverse the Student Senate’s decision if it votes to sever ties with the group.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Carothers understands he is responsible for defending students' constitutional rights and that the Student Senate must uphold the Bill of Rights.

“As bad as it is to tell somebody what they can’t say, it’s even worse to tell them what they must say,” Lukianoff said. "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."