EAU CLAIRE, Wis., November 14, 2005—Under nationwide pressure over its ban on private, resident assistant (RA)-led Bible studies, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) has widened its assault on basic civil liberties while engaging in a campaign of deception. UWEC has told the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that RAs are now and have been prohibited from “leading, organizing or recruiting students” for any organization or activity in their dorms—an assertion flatly contradicted by the evidence.
“UWEC’s response to FIRE defies rational explanation,” stated David French, president of FIRE, which brought the situation to the public’s attention after UWEC refused to rectify it privately. “Faced with intense public criticism over its repressive policy, UWEC has announced an even more repressive policy. Further, for UWEC to argue that it has ‘consistently followed’ a policy banning RAs from leading or organizing ‘all organizations or activities’ flies in the face of the evidence—and logic.”
The controversy began on July 26, when an administrator banned RAs from leading private, non-school-sponsored Bible studies in their dorms out of concern that students might feel “judged” and that Bible study–leading RAs might not be sufficiently “approachable.” Undergraduate RA Lance Steiger contacted FIRE, which on October 10 asked UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson to lift the Bible study ban. Receiving no response, FIRE took the case public on November 2, resulting in public outcry and condemnation of the policy from state and national lawmakers.
Finally, in a November 8 letter, the University of Wisconsin’s general counsel attempted to justify the Bible study ban by claiming that UWEC has “consistently followed” a “viewpoint neutral” policy prohibiting RAs from organizing or leading “all organization [sic] or activities.” This claim contradicts UWEC’s own job description for RAs, which gives RAs the responsibility “[t]o help organize and promote educational, recreational, social, and cultural activities that the students want and need,” and asks them to “actively assist” in the “political” programs of the dorm. It also conflicts with the fact that the university praised an RA for leading an official dorm production of The Vagina Monologues in 2004.
“UWEC’s claim that RAs are banned from organizing any activities is not only disingenuous; it is clearly a post hoc justification of its earlier viewpoint-discriminatory restrictions on RAs’ religious expression,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Further, for a university to decide that an acceptable alternative to banning the expression of only some viewpoints is to ban all viewpoints is disgraceful and shows a real ignorance of what it means to be a university in a free society.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire can be viewed at thefire.org/uwec.
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