Rhode Island College settles suit over abortion-rights signs

RHODE ISLAND –A lawsuit over road signs supporting abortion rights ended with Rhode Island College paying $11,350 and clarifying its signage policy as part of a settlement announced Tuesday.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2005 incident in which the school’s Women’s Studies Organization placed signs — with slogans such as “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries” and “Our bodies, our choices” — beside the public school’s entrance road. A priest who regularly visits the college saw the signs and told the college’s president, who then had campus police remove them.

The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the university in December 2006 on behalf of the student group, saying the college violated the WSO’s First Amendment rights.

“The settlement is great. I think we got what we wanted,” said Jennifer Azevedo, the ACLU volunteer attorney who represented the WSO. “Whether they admit it or not, I think they realized that it was just something that shouldn’t have happened. These students’ rights got trampled.”

The university will pay $5,000 to the WSO, as well as $6,350 in attorney fees and costs. The college also created a new policy regarding signage placed along the school’s roadways. Only roadway displays offering directions to campus events are allowed, and those must be prepared by the college. Sponsoring groups can choose the event’s title, however. Under the settlement, the college does not admit any liability for its actions in the 2005 incident.

The ACLU said in a statement that it will continue to monitor how the new policy is implemented.

Outside of campus roadways, the college still has no restrictions regarding signage, Azevedo said.

Jane Fusco, a spokeswoman for Rhode Island College, said that the university felt the issue never was about freedom of expression.

“It was a matter of miscommunication of the campus sign policy that has now been clarified,” Fusco said. “Throughout the entire mater Rhode Island College has always supported the First Amendment rights of its students and will continue to do so.”

Jennifer Magaw, who was a freshman member of the WSO at the time of the 2005 incident and now is its president, said the new policy will not keep her organization from continuing its activism.

“It’s kind of a compromise,” Magaw said. “I’m upset we won’t be able to use the roadways anymore. I guess it just means we will have to be more creative. But there’s plenty of other places that signs can be put up, and I don’t think that’s going to stop us from doing more events like that in the future.”

Magaw said she plans to use the money from the suit to hold more events.

“We definitely want to continue the dialogue on reproductive rights that we tried to do, but were stopped last time,” Magaw said.

Magaw said the university probably decided to settle the lawsuit because the issue was dragging out. In February, the school was asked by members of the Rhode Island Board of Governors to withdraw a motion in which a school attorney claimed the college was not subject to the First Amendment.

“I think that must have been kind of embarrassing, so I think they are ready to move on and just keep it quiet, get it out of the way,” Magaw said.

For More Information:

Case: Women’s Studies Organization of RhodeIsland College, et al v. Rhode Island College, et al, No.1:06-cv-00525-S-DLM (D.R.I. settlement approved Aug. 27,2007)

  • Rhode Island College withdraws motion claiming First Amendment does not apply to school News Flash, 2/8/2007