Watchdog group ponders college suits

An education watchdog group is charging several colleges around the country with silencing free speech after shutting down bake sales and is considering legal action.

The “affirmative action bake sales,” held by Republican and libertarian groups are modeled after “wage gap” bake sales held by student feminist groups, have sold cookies and brownies at different prices depending on student’s race and sex to protest college policies that determine admissions based on such factors.

The bake sales have been shut down on several college campuses in recent months. At one, two angry students at the University of Washington who were opposed to the bake-sale protest threatened the participating students and had to be restrained by police when they ripped down signs and threw cookies. A school official then told the College Republicans, the group holding the sale, to take down their table and disperse.

“It sets a horrible precedent on campus, that if you want to stop someone’s free speech, just get violent,” said Jason Chambers, a senior at UW and president of the College Republicans club.

But Jerry Grinstein, president of the University of Washington’s Board of Regents, supported shutting down the bake sale and wrote in a letter to the student newspaper: “The ‘statements’ of the UW College Republicans in putting on a bake sale about affirmative action were tasteless, and hurtful to many members of the university community. … We pledge our best efforts to foster a welcoming environment for a diverse university community.”

These kind of incidents, which have occurred at several other schools across the country, have prompted the civil liberties watchdog the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to begin a public relations drive and consider legal action against the schools.

“We are beginning a campaign to expose their administrations and trustees as being delinquent in their duties to protect the First Amendment, to the extent that they have sanctioned criminal violence to silence political debate,” FIRE’s chief executive, Thor L. Halvorssen, said.

“We have not ruled out a lawsuit and are in conversations with the students involved as well as members of our legal network,” Mr. Halvorssen said.

Similar bake sales have been shut down on the campuses of the University of California at Irvine, Northwestern University, the College of William & Mary and Southern Methodist University.

At Northwestern, the student Objectivist Club held a bake sale for a few hours before being told to shut down “or face the police,” according to a report posted on the club’s Web site.

The Northwestern student government put the group “under investigation, which is chilling. … They were on trial for having this,” Mr. Halvorssen said. The group was found guilty of financial misconduct for not having an approved cash box for a bake sale that netted a total profit of 39 cents.

The Objectivist Club was also found guilty of “ineffectual leadership,” for not specifically stating that the bake sale was a political protest, and the student government placed sanctions on the group.

Greg Lukianoff, FIRE director of legal and public advocacy, sent a letter to Northwestern President Henry S. Bienen on Nov. 10 stating: “Northwestern University has a moral and legal duty to deliver what it promises to its students, and it has promised them the freedom to speak and to protest. Freedom must not be restricted by the complaints of those who are ‘offended’ by views contrary to their own.”

Four days later, a Northwestern attorney responded by saying that the bake sale was shut down only because of technicalities.

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