New SGA bill raises questions about free speech

By Megan Lupo

A new bill passed on Feb. 26 by the Student Government Association (SGA) has received a lot of pushback, with some claiming it violates the First Amendment.

In a roll call vote with 27 yes statements and one abstention, the bill passed, and SGA President and senior English major John Modica, who established the bill, defended its purpose of preventing hateful speech and promoting a safe campus. It will be utilized as a “protective measure,” he said.

“The intention of the bill was to implement the new procedure for the student senate that if a student organization recognized by SGA and Rider University does something that we feel violates the experience of another student, faculty or staff member, or if they do something that compromises people’s safety, we feel their recognition should be questioned,” Modica said.

According to the Feb. 27 press release from the Rider College Republicans’ executive board, the club expressed dissatisfaction with the vague wording of the bill, including the unspecified nature of clubs “participating in, hosting, or condoning activities that espouse inflammatory, hateful or derogatory rhetoric or agendas.”

Although Modica admitted that “maybe we were being too creative with the language,” the original aim behind the ambiguity was to “leave it to the discretion of the senators in the future years to determine whether [an organization’s speech] is necessarily hateful or inflammatory, or whether it violates someone’s safety.”

Communication professor Pamela Brown, who specializes in communication law, agreed that student government would be “better off if [SGA] has a more clear and specific policy than a vague one if they decide to sue. And let’s face it, they can get a conservative organization to provide funds for a lawsuit because that’s the world we live in today. [SGA] needs to identify what kind of conduct would be problematic so people know in advance of engaging in the conduct that they can’t do that.”

College Republicans President and junior marketing major Alex Solomon expressed further concerns about the bill being approved, despite Modica’s intention to change the word choice first.

“The press release that we posted expressed our displeasure with a new bill that was passed by the SGA senate,” Solomon said. “We felt as though the bill violated the First Amendment rights of students who are members and leaders of campus organizations, as well as could possibly be used to target any organization that the SGA at that point in time is not in agreement with.”

Modica resolved that SGA could “find a better way to word it that maybe isn’t as ambiguous or doesn’t leave people feeling as though they might be targeted by this bill, just because that is the political climate that we live in.”

One organization that caused a stir in the fall 2017 semester among student government was Turning Point USA (TPUSA), which was denied recognition.

President of Rider’s TPUSA chapter and sophomore accounting major Joshua Aminov said, “People are concerned about our organization coming to Rider because of apparent liberal biases that were clearly present in the Lawrenceville student senate during our first and second senate hearing last semester.”

The questionable actions of TPUSA on college campuses were one of the main factors why SGA rejected their recognition, such as launching their project called Professor Watchlist, which intends to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to the Professor Watchlist website.

Modica said, “They’re encouraging the surveillance of our professors. That, I find, is a violation of academic freedom and free speech. Not only does it potentially endanger faculty by subjecting them to harassment or threats, as we’ve seen at other schools, it circumvents the whole purpose of the university, which is to encourage discourse between people with opposing beliefs.”

Citing this type of practice as a reason for SGA to take precaution against organizations that might inflict harm or hysteria, Modica felt compelled to create the bill to assure students that their education and time at Rider will not be compromised.

“What we’re trying to say is that any organization, if they do something that violates someone’s safety, autonomy or privacy, or they try to act derogatory toward different demographic groups, then those things we don’t believe should be represented by any student organization that’s receiving student activities fee money,” Modica said. “We want to make sure any club can be held to a certain standard on how they should be treating other people.”

In addition to the press release, Rider’s College Republicans published a photo collage on their social media of suppressors of free speech, such as Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro on the left side and supporters of free speech, such as former Presidents John F. Kennedy and George Washington on the right side. 

Separated by a red line, the post implies that SGA is leaning toward the oppressive side.

Modica believed that this was a bit “extreme,” and Solomon agreed, but said the impact behind the comparison was effective.

“Obviously, this bill suppresses free speech on a much lesser scale than Hitler, [Joseph] Stalin, Castro and Kim Jong Un did or currently do, but the illustration of whose company the SGA would be in by suppressing some form of free speech is definitely a powerful one that can reach many audiences and is easy to understand,” Solomon said.

The immediate hope of TPUSA is to be a SGA-recognized organization.

In order for a student group to be recognized, it needs to reach out to the student organization chair, who sends requirements, such as a roster of active members, a constitution, an executive board election process and events planned. If it passes the student organization committee’s standards, it goes to student senate to be voted on, according to Modica. By being recognized, the organization can book spaces on campus, hold sponsored events and receive funding.

Brown questioned whether there was “a general statement the SGA has that says how and why it recognizes organizations at all.”

When Modica said there wasn’t, Brown advised that one should be made as precaution.

Modica responded that he has “been told that [a general statement] is contained in the resolution that the Board of Trustees approves every time student government gets re-recognized, which occurs at the June board meeting. The only problem is that no one can find the actual resolution.”

Although clubs and organizations are allowed to assemble informally, they are not going to receive any type of financial or space support through the university. Aminov does not want to run his organization this way and was critical of how SGA treated TPUSA during that procedure.

“We would like to be recognized by SGA on campus because we believe that is our right. During the process of being recognized last semester, the SGA had a split in the senate. During our first senate hearing, [Modica] was not able to attend and decided to send a statement of concern to myself and the entire student senate asking them to ask several questions to our club on his behalf and to postpone the vote to the next week, if they felt it was necessary,” Aminov said. “This was a concern in and of itself, as [Modica] had posed no questions to the other students proposing a different club after us. For this reason, we felt that our club and the organization it represents were being unfairly attacked.”

Modica said the reasoning behind the recognition of a club is to decide whether the club is acting in its own interest or if it’s going to “ultimately benefit the entire climate of the university.”

The censorship of certain offensive speech might do more harm, according to Brown.

Brown said, “There is a bad history for hate speech codes on campus. They don’t generally stand up in court as being constitutional. There is some case law in New Jersey that our state constitution gives greater First Amendment protection than the federal constitution, so that some private places have been treated, as places where the First Amendment applies. That hasn’t been challenged in a long time.”

Just as SGA can give funding to clubs, they can revoke that status. In the past, clubs have lost recognition because of inactiveness. With this bill, clubs could also lose their SGA sponsorship by a two-thirds majority rule if they commit an action deemed intolerable, Modica said.

“The university isn’t going to extend its resources to some random group that just asks for money or space; we need to make sure that the group has the right intentions and is going about things in a way that ultimately will better Rider,” Modica said. “I think it’s perfectly fair for us to have a recognition process, and for that recognition process to determine whether groups can receive resources.”

Upon hearing the backlash from Rider’s College Republicans and TPUSA, Modica plans to revise the bill to align with “Rider’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, which already exist and every student already adheres to.”

Modica continued, “This opens up a new direction for SGA on how can we align ourselves with the Office of Community Standards and possibly affirmative action, and whether they need to have a hand in helping us handle these cases. We never had that directly of a relationship with them before, so this is potentially an opportunity to look at that.”

An advocate for a safe discourse campus, Modica reached out to Rider’s College Republicans to talk about reaching an agreement of satisfaction with the bill.

Solomon expressed appreciation with Modica organizing this conversation.

“In the United States, a government official who listens to his or her constituents and works to address their concerns is one who is truly doing his or her job,” Solomon said. “It is the same for SGA, and we really do thank John for reaching out and setting up a meeting where hopefully we can find some sort of solution where we both leave happy.”

Although there may be differing opinions from the organizations vocal about this bill, Solomon concluded that clubs should be able to freely express their viewpoints, whether hateful or not, as protected by the Constitution.

“Free speech is the pinnacle of a college campus. In 1964 and 1965, students from the University of California, Berkeley marched and protested to gain the right to speak freely on their college campus, and now, just over 50 years later, this battle has been brought back to campuses across the country, not just ours,” Solomon said. “Without freedom of speech, there cannot be a free and open discourse. Without discourse, mental growth is severely inhibited. Any student government that takes away any part of a student or club’s right to free speech and freedom of expression is doing a disservice to the entire student body.”

Brown echoed that sentiment.

“It’s very hard to live in a free society and put up with a lot of expression of ideas that are really horrible,” she said. “But when you leave a campus, you’re going to encounter them everywhere you go. Is it really in our best interests of our students to create a cocoon here that doesn’t confront them with what their going to be confronting in work places and everywhere else they go? If we can count on the right response to that bad behavior, then I would say we should let the bad behavior happen because I don’t want to drive it underground, where it just tends to build on itself and spread.”

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