Rhode Island Student Paper Faces Eviction Threat

08/30/2010 06:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some First Amendment problems knock you down with the force of the state of California landing on your head. Others come in smaller orders of magnitude. Like, say, when the FCC shuts down your personal television network in Quahog, Rhode Island. Or, for example, the challenge the newspaper is facing at Community College of Rhode Island.

In a nutshell, Student Government President Manna Muhuri wants to evict nearly all student groups from the Knight campus' student activity building. Except for the student government, of course. And another club lucky enough to count Muhuri as a member. And a club for veterans, after a club officer complained that his blindness made the closure a hardship.

The plan, supposedly, was to evict all the clubs, and then permit some of them to return: there are more clubs than there are spaces, after all. So what criteria would Muhuri use to allocate the space?

"When school starts, we're going to have open forums for clubs who fit the leadership profile... and that's when we probably start allocating rooms then."

Oh, of course. Clubs that fit the "leadership profile." Well, that doesn't sound at all arbitrary or constitutionally suspect. Hmm.

You might wonder: would the newspaper, the Unfiltered Lens, fit the leadership profile?

"The thing is, Unfiltered Lens, who was part of last year's student government, kind of let the whole college and the community down by not participating in activities and administration totally lost hope in them," Muhuri said.

I suppose we can't allocate space to a newspaper that lets the administration down, can we? Because it's not like the job of a newspaper is to speak truth to power, or to report the parts of reality that the public relations people would prefer to gloss over, or anything.

And besides, they didn't participate in activities! I heard a rumor that not a single member of the Unfiltered Lens showed up to the ultimate Frisbee game on the quad. Harsh, bro.

Certainly, there couldn't be any ulterior motive to this process, could there?

David Gannon, chief executor of The Unfiltered Lens, said Student Government President Manna Muhuri offered to give the office space back in exchange for positive coverage.


Muhuri categorically denies any such allegation, and at the moment, it's just the word of a handful of newspaper staff members against the president of the student government. Either way, it seems hard to have much faith in the litmus test of "leadership," which, so far, seems to be "not pissing off Muhuri by blowing off his hacky sack tournament."

You might well wonder at this point why a student body president is evicting students from state-owned property. I mean, this is land the taxpayers have paid for, for the purposes of supporting the educational and extracurricular needs of its students. It's not like one student on a power trip could subvert the institution's obligation to allocate space fairly, am I right?

"The college identifies space on campus and within this building because it's really one big building, [and] says, 'listen, these are student offices and this is student space,'" [Associate Vice President for Student Services Ron] Schertz said. "And really, we don't get into the nitty gritty of who occupies what space there."

Oh, okay. I guess that makes sense. They don't get into the nitty gritty of, you know, fulfilling the state obligation to ensure space is allocated in a constitutionally permissible way.

Oh no wait, they do! When asked about the alleged quid pro quo:

"If I would ever hear of any such thing, I would have reacted to that very quickly," Schertz said.

Phew, that was close! So now he's going to intervene and everything will work out in some legally sound way, right?

"Those kinds of allegations -- you know, even though people have said them, they can't produce any verification that it occurred."

I'm starting to see how Buddy Cianci, Jr. did so well in this state: it's all just a rumor until somebody wears a wire. Query whether the state is really fulfilling its obligation to uphold the constitution by refusing to intervene until they have a smoking gun. It's like promising to prosecute a lynch mob as soon as the lynching victim walks in ready to testify.

For the moment, the student government is permitting the newspaper to remain in its office while another suitable space is found. (For the moment, the newspaper isn't pursuing a lawsuit, either.)

Is this the biggest potential First Amendment violation in the universe? Probably not; I'm sure somewhere in this world there's a journalist being beaten for exposing a dictator or defending a minority. But this is America, and that's not typically how we run into violations of free expression.

A First Amendment problem, like racism, is most dangerous when it can pass undetected by the officials charged with defending individual rights. Perhaps that's because the situation isn't as painful as the violent reactions speech can receive in other places; perhaps that's because of an unwillingness to investigate the possibility of a violation. But either way, the Constitution, and our obligations under it, remain unchanged, and either we believe in that as Americans or we don't.

Two things are necessary to complete a First Amendment violation: an improper motivation and a detriment to the ability to publish. I think "eviction" is pretty detrimental. The only remaining question is whether Muhuri's motivation is based, in any part, on a dislike of the content of the Unfiltered Lens. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it is. But since the state is on the hook if there's anything constitutionally suspect about the action, if I was in their shoes, I might well get involved in the "nitty gritty" of protecting individual rights.

Next time, I'm supporting the one public official in Rhode Island we can trust: Mayor Adam West.