Censorship on a Rhode Island Campus · 16 October 2003
By Jason Mattera
American universities shun intellectual diversity. Or, at least, that's the grim conclusion conservatives at one Rhode Island campus have been reaching in recent weeks. At Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI members of the school's chapter of College Republicans have been physically threatened, accused of hate speech, and have stood by as the university forcibly shut down its only conservative publication and cut off funding to the school's only Republican organization. The Hawk's Right Eye, which I edit, has been judged the second-best College Republican newspaper in the country, according to the College Republican National Committee. It is now a victim of a university administration's intolerance. The crime we committed? Speaking out in public against university policies we consider to limit intellectual diversity.
The story begins in August, when the university sponsored two speakers under the ostensible banner of diversity. As things turned out, the speakers, Judy Shepard, mother of slain homosexual Mathew Shepard, and James Dale, a gay man kicked out of the Boy Scouts, were interested in anything but diversity. Instead, the speakers took the occasion to denounce organized religion and cast aspersion upon President Bush's demonstrable commitment to civil rights.
"Churches are damaging us as a society," Shepard explained in a mandatory speech to freshmen during Welcome Week. "They don't allow us to grow," she continued. Students expecting a talk focusing exclusively on the evils of homophobia-what we would expect from Shepard-were unpleasantly surprised by Shepard's tirade against churches.
Did the university knowingly require freshmen to undergo a seminar in anti-religious sentiment? Why did it subject freshmen to such views in a forum with clear university endorsement? Does the university take sectarian positions on organized religion? These are the questions thoughtful students have posed to the university community. But the university did not answer them, and at the very least appeared content to allow impressionable newcomers to conclude that the university endorses such positions.
The second of the two speakers, James Dale, the gay man who was kicked out of the Boy Scouts, was just as inflammatory as Judy Shepard. He used the podium to argue that President Bush "is not an advocate of civil rights" because he doesn't support gay marriage. Dale said that when he was a Boy Scout "nobody knew about its discrimination policy. Nobody knew [the Boy Scouts] was anti-gay."
Roger Williams's conservative students, sensing some views going unrepresented, pointed out that according to senate regulations, student organizations-including the ones that organized the Shepard and Dale events-are supposed to represent views across the spectrum. Indeed, the student senate's rules of financial sponsorship are specifically designed to combat partisan agendas from non-partisan organizations. Section V, article I of the student senate bylaws defines an organization "as a group that targets the general campus population in its scope of activities and programs." Clubs, including my own College Republicans, can be ideologically partisan. But the organizations in question-The Campus Entertainment Network, the Inter Residence Hall Association, and the Department of Campus Programs-were the groups who sponsored Shepard and Dale and paid their way to campus. Together, they have a combined budget of over $715,000. As anyone can judge by the names of these groups, clear university endorsement is implied when a "Department of Campus Programs" or some such official-sounding entity sponsors an event.
I decided it was time to confront this ideological programming and the system that fosters it. As a student senator in college government, founder of The Hawk's Right Eye, the College Republicans' periodical, and president of the Rhode Island Federation of College Republicans, I called upon College Republicans to take common-sense steps to promote intellectual diversity to defend traditional values that the university was marginalizing.
I co-sponsored a Student Senate bill-similar to David Horowitz's Students For Academic Freedom Bill of Rights-that would require politically divisive lectures sponsored by well-funded, non-partisan organizations to represent views inclusive to liberal and conservative students alike. Basically, requiring organizations to follow their charter and not become mascots for a particular agenda. In addition, I wrote articles in The Hawk's Right Eye exposing the intolerance of militant homosexuals, explaining the bastardization of the word "diversity", and contesting the claim that failure to affirm homosexual practices, due to moral or religious convictions, constitutes bigotry. You can read The Hawk's Right Eye at www.rwucr.com.
The day after I introduced the Student Senate bill, I was fired from my job at the Department of Campus Programs.
I was suddenly accused of breaking and entering the programming office to flip through personnel and payroll files in order to see budget figures for the Department of Campus Programs. The charge was ludicrous, not least because these figures are a matter of public record which can be obtained openly by any member of the university, according to the President.
It got worse. The university administration proceeded to attack The Hawk's Right Eye, the only conservative publication on campus. Three days after The Hawk's Right Eye was distributed, RWU's president Roy J. Nirschel sent an e-mail letter to the entire student body accusing our paper of flirting with racism and "cross[ing] seriously over the lines of propriety." "The university will not condone publications that create a hostile environment for our students and community," Nirschel wrote. The university is "too busy for hate," he told the student body. We have since offered $25 to the first reader to find racist rhetoric in The Hawk's Right Eye, but no one to date has been able to do so.
Then came the death-blow. The administration cut off all funding to The Hawk's Right Eye. This act is totally in violation of the Roger Williams University student handbook which says, "Roger Williams does not discriminate on the basis of…political affiliation." According to RWU, "such discrimination is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972."
The administration did so abruptly and in the middle of a semester, in contradiction of standard procedures which require funding decisions to go through the student senate.
The senate bill was portrayed as an anti-gay bill that would welcome the KKK and encourage gay lynchings on campus. "In my classes and from my peers, all I heard was the same hyperbole surrounding the senate bill-that it was a College Republican ploy which would welcome a KKK rally in the parking lot," said former student senator Elysia Rodriquez.
The senate bill called for basic intellectual diversity only, but situated as it was, in a climate of uproar and hysteria, it was not ratified. Next, after the uproar, RWU's provost, Edward Kavanagh, asked CR advisor Prof. June Speakman to step down from her role as the club's faculty sponsor. It was not clear to us what Speakman had done wrong. According to Kavanagh, the College Republicans do not accurately represent the Republican Party, and therefore need a different adviser who would correct their folly.
Kavanagh, thinking it fitting to tell a tenured faculty advisor how she should conduct herself and how she should manage her own voluntary university service, tried to solve the controversy with a heavy-handed approach. We thank her publicly and often for her support, but we are only students, and the provost is second in command. If Speakman does resign, our club will become an unofficial campus organization with a severely limited means of expression. Campus demonstrations, statewide activism, lectures, our Internet forum, and our periodical will all come to an end. The "politically correct" liberal view will effectively be the only one seen or heard on campus.
Director of Student Affairs Richard Stegman has convinced liberal student senators to propose my impeachment from the student senate finance committee owing to unsubstantiated charges of "dereliction of duty" and "gross negligence". The university administration has already cut off all funding to The Hawk's Right Eye, while ignoring standard protocol. Stegman claims to support intellectual diversity and has said that he would never micro-manage any organization or club sanctioned by the student senate. By halting these funds for CR and calling for my impeachment, he has shown himself to be a blatant hypocrite.
If you are a liberal, there are no stipulations, but if you are a conservative, there are many. As David Horowitz says, the rule of the left is "tolerance for me and not for thee". Cowards shun debate and rely on turbid epithets to compensate for political and intellectual vacuity. The administration at RWU craves leftist uniformity and plans to silence discordant views that are not in lockstep with their oppressive, narrow-minded agenda. If you agree that this progression of events at RWU is symptomatic of a dangerous national trend, we encourage you to speak your mind.
E-mail or call Professor June Speakman to praise her commitment to intellectual diversity:
firstname.lastname@example.org, (401) 254-3346
To read president Nirschel's all-student e-mail and The Hawk's Right Eye article used to prompt his "straw man" response, visit www.rwucr.com.
Jedediah Jones, a sophomore at Roger Williams University majoring in political science and a frequent writer for The Hawk's Right Eye, contributed to this article.
Jason Mattera, an economics fellow at the National Journalism Center, was named Best College Republican State Chairman in 2003 and is a junior at Roger Williams University.