R.I. College to pay $5,000 to settle sign lawsuit

By The Associated Press
09.26.07

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island College will pay $5,000 to a women’s group that filed a lawsuit claiming its free-speech rights were violated when campus police removed signs that said “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.”

Under a settlement announced yesterday, the public college also has made changes to its sign policy to clarify what can be posted on campus.

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court on the group’s behalf. The college will pay the students’ legal fees.

“College is a place for the free exchange of ideas, and I can now be proud to say I attend a school which allows the free-speech rights that are essential to a learning community,” Jennifer Magaw, the president of the Women’s Studies Organization, said in a statement.

The student group posted a series of signs near the campus entrance in December 2005 as a way to promote women’s reproductive rights. The signs were intended to provoke discussion about the refusal by some pharmacists locally and nationally to distribute emergency contraception to customers for religious reasons.

A Roman Catholic priest arriving on campus for a weekly Mass expressed concern about the signs to the college president, who then directed police to take them down.

Rhode Island College spokeswoman Jane Fusco said the signs were removed because they were not associated with a specific event or program. She also said the signs were placed in an area of campus where signs were generally prohibited. But the lawsuit says that policy was applied unevenly since the same location has been used over the years for various signs and messages.

“The issue was never about free speech,” Fusco said. “It was a miscommunication of campus policy that has since been clarified.”

Each sign posted by the group contained a couple of words which, when read progressively by a passer-by, revealed the statement, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.” The signs also said, “Our bodies, our choice” and “Brought to you by RIC Women’s Studies Organization.”

The new sign policy will allow for more student expression at the college but does include some restrictions, said Jennifer Azevedo, a lawyer for the women’s group.

Now, signs displayed along campus roads must be limited to providing directions to specific events at the school. But student groups are free to publicize their event on the sign and can title their program whatever they want, she said.

Azevedo said the new policy was far better than the alternative of banning all signs from the road.

“Now it’s very clear what the steps are, what’s going to be required of them, what’s going to be required of the college, so everyone is on the same page,” she said.

The policy places no restrictions on signs located elsewhere in the campus.

Azevedo said the rosaries-ovaries signs, as displayed two years ago, would have been unacceptable under the school’s new policy because they did not include directions to a program or event.

But, she added, “They could have a program called the ‘Keep your rosaries off our ovaries,’ event. They could put that on the signs above the directions that tell you where to go for that program. That’s how I interpret that policy.”

An attorney for the college did not return a phone message in time for this story.