Rhode Island College withdraws motion claiming First Amendment does not apply to school

RHODE ISLAND — An attorney representing Rhode Island College withdrew a motion Wednesday that asserted the college is not an entity of the government and therefore is not subject to the First Amendment.

The motion, filed Friday, petitioned the U.S. District Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU contends that the college violated the rights of a student group when it removed their signs advocating abortion rights.

The motion stated that Rhode Island College is not a government entity and two administrators who have been named defendants are not government employees. Rather, the college was part of a “public corporation” and not “an alter ego or arm of the state,” the motion stated.

“Any actions they took or failed to take in relation to the case at bar were not under the color of the law,” the motion stated. “It is fundamental that the First Amendment is concerned with government action only.”

The college is a member of the Rhode Island Board of Governors for High Education, and this academic year it received $126 million in state funds — accounting for about a third of the school’s budget.

If the motion had been granted, it could have had potential repercussions for student free expression rights not only at Rhode Island College, but at public colleges in other states where the same rationale was adopted.

But when members of the Rhode Island Board of Governors learned of the motion, they asked for it to be withdrawn. Board members did not believe that the motion reflects their view, a spokesperson for Rhode Island College said.

“We are a public institution of higher education subject to all the constitutional prohibitions and laws that apply to other public entities,” Frank Caprio, chairman of the board of governors, told The Providence Journal.

Jane Fusco, spokeswoman for Rhode Island College, said the motion was based on “a narrow technical legal argument based on past precedents,” though she deferred further questions on the case to the attorneys.

“I am sure we will be hearing from them again soon and expect that they will provide more details in a new filing at a later date,” Fusco said.

Attempts to contact the college’s attorney, Nicholas Trott Long, were unsuccessful.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said he was glad that the issue has subsided.

“I’m pleased that cooler heads recognized that it simply was without any foundation,” he said.

The dispute originated more than a year ago when a campus women’s group placed a series of signs along the college’s main entrance that stated “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries,” among other abortion rights phrases.

The Providence Journal reported that, according to the lawsuit, a priest who regularly visits the campus saw the signs and told the president, who ordered the signs be taken down.

The group received permission to erect the signs, but only in the context of promoting an event, Fusco said. In this case, the signs were removed because they did not announce any kind of forum, she said, and not because of their content.

“The signs had appeared literally overnight, and there was nothing associated with the signs,” she said. “When there are signs erected on campus it’s usually to promote a specific event.

Brown contested Fusco’s account, and he argued that the signs were taken down solely because of the political message.

“It’s a bit of rewriting of history,” he said. “The students received all the appropriate permissions to post these signs, and the signs themselves were really the event. … There’s no question in our minds that it was the content that led to the censorship.”

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer