The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island College for censoring a sign display supporting reproductive freedom that was sponsored by a student women’s rights group on campus. The signs were taken down after administrators received objections about them from a priest. The lawsuit also challenges a new sign policy that the college has adopted in response to this incident. The suit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Jennifer Azevedo, argues that the college’s actions and the sign policy violate the First Amendment rights of the student group, the Women’s Studies Organization (WSO) of RIC, and its three student officers, Nichole Aguiar, Sarah Satterlee and Jennifer Magaw.

In November of last year, the WSO planned an event involving expression of the group’s views on reproductive freedom. The plan involved putting up a series of signs on a grassy area beside the entrance road on RIC property. The signs stated, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries”, “Our bodies, our choice”, “Brought to you by RIC Women’s Studies Organization” and were intended to coincide with a general day of activism on women’s issues to take place on December 5, 2005.

A year ago this evening, shortly after the signs went up, a priest drove onto the campus to conduct a weekly Catholic Mass at the home of RIC President John Nazarian. The priest observed the signs and made reference to them at the weekly service. President Nazarian immediately contacted the campus police and, after talking with them, ordered the signs taken down. President Nazarian subsequently advised the students that there were additional approval stages required to post signs, even though they had previously been assured by administration officials that they had followed all the necessary steps.

The lawsuit notes that both before and since September 2006, when the college adopted a formal policy generally restricting signs alongside the road entrances to the RIC campus, a variety of temporary signs (including signs for the recent local and national elections) have been posted by students, organizations, and the College itself 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 plaintiffs for violation of their First Amendment rights.

WSO President Nichole Aguiar said today, “College is a place for the free expression of ideas. 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.” Added RIACLU volunteer Jennifer Azevedo: “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.”