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RIC settles in "Rosaries and Ovaries" case

The Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU has announced a settlement with Rhode Island College:

The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced a favorable settlement in its 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 ACLU lawsuit, filed by volunteer attorney Jennifer Azevedo, had argued that the college violated the First Amendment rights of the student group, the Women’s Studies Organization (WSO) of RIC, and its three student officers. The highlight of the settlement is an award by RIC of $5,000 to the student group.

 

In December 2005, the WSO, in conjunction with a general day of activism on women’s issues to take place the next day, put 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.” Shortly after the signs went up, they were seen by a priest driving onto the campus to conduct a weekly Mass at the home of RIC President John Nazarian. After the priest raised concerns about them, President Nazarian immediately contacted the campus police and ordered the signs taken down. He subsequently advised the students that additional approval stages were required to post signs, even though they had previously been assured that they had followed all the necessary steps.

 Under the settlement agreement, the College does not admit any liability for its actions that night, but has agreed to give $5,000 to the WSO, and also to pay $6,350 in attorneys fees and costs. In addition, the College has adopted a uniform policy governing all signage posted on the college roadways.

Earlier this year, the Phoenix graced RIC president John Nazarian with a prestigious Muzzle Award:

In December 2005, the Women’s Studies Organization at the college posted several signs in support of reproductive freedom — including, most notably, KEEP YOUR ROSARIES OFF OUR OVARIES. A priest reportedly noticed the signs while traveling to Nazarian’s home to celebrate mass, and mentioned them during the service. Nazarian responded by ordering that the signs be taken down, claiming that the women had not followed the proper approval process.

This past December, the Rhode Island ACLU filed suit in federal court, claiming the women’s First Amendment rights had been abridged. Now, of course, it’s true that people can’t go around putting up signs anywhere they please. But according to the ACLU, the place where the Women’s Studies Organization had posted its signs — the entrance to the campus — has been the scene of numerous temporary signs, including some put up by the college itself.

Rhode Island College is a public, taxpayer-funded institution, which makes Nazarian’s act of censorship that much worse. “A public university can’t abridge anyone’s free-speech rights, including [those of] students,” says Jennifer Azevedo, a volunteer lawyer with the ACLU.

The mystery is why Nazarian believed he needed to do anything. A demonstration of pro-choice sentiment at a college in the liberal Northeast is hardly the stuff of controversy. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that even the priest who mentioned it to Nazarian was offended, no matter how strongly he may have disagreed with the message. If Nazarian had just waited a few days, the signs would have been gone and forgotten.

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