ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against Rhode Island College for Censoring Reproductive Rights Signs

December 4, 2006 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island College (RIC) for censoring signs posted by students in support of reproductive freedom. The lawsuit charges that the college’s restrictive sign policy, which was adopted after the student signs were removed, violates the First Amendment.

“It is unfortunate to see the free speech rights of students on such an important public issue violated by an institution of higher education, and we are hopeful for a favorable court decision vindicating those rights,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Jennifer Azevedo.

Last year, the campus Women’s Studies Organization (WSO) planned an event to coincide with a general day of activism on women’s issues scheduled for December 5, 2005. The plan involved displaying a series of signs on a grassy area beside the entrance road on college property. The signs stated, “Our bodies, our choice,” “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries,” and “Brought to you by RIC Women’s Studies Organization.”

During a weekly Catholic mass at the home of Rhode Island College President John Nazarian, a priest made reference to the signs. After the mass, President Nazarian immediately contacted the campus police and ordered the signs taken down. He subsequently advised the women’s studies group SO and its three student officers, Nichole Aguiar, Sarah Satterlee and Jennifer Magaw, that they had failed to meet additional approval stages required to post signs. However, the student leaders said they had previously been assured by administration officials that they had followed all the necessary steps.

In response to the incident, the college adopted a formal policy generally restricting signs alongside the road entrances to the campus in September 2006. Yet according to today’s lawsuit, a variety of signs (including signs for the recent local and national elections) have been posted by students, organizations and college officials in apparent violation of the policy, but with no attempt by the college to have them immediately removed. The lawsuit asks the court to declare unconstitutional both the college’s censorship of the WSO signs and the college’s new, selectively enforced signage policy, and to award unspecified damages to the students for violation of their First Amendment rights.

“College is a place for the free expression of ideas,” said WSO President Nichole Aguiar. “RIC has denied our organization those rights and we have decided to take action to ensure that RIC is a better place for all students.”

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