Free Speech Victory at Rhode Island College

By on September 10, 2004

PROVIDENCE, R.I., September 10, 2004—Rhode Island College (RIC) Associate Dean Scott Kane stated in a decision released yesterday that he believes no “further formal action” is required in the college’s trial of Dr. Lisa Church, a professor who refused to censor constitutionally protected speech.

“While the decision is welcome news for Professor Church and her family, RIC still has not recognized the unconstitutionality and injustice of its actions. RIC was clearly trying someone for ‘discrimination’ for refusing to punish another person’s speech,” said David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which wrote to RIC on the professor’s behalf and brought intense media and public scrutiny to the college’s actions. “This hearing never should have happened.”

Last February, Professor Church, as the coordinator for RIC’s cooperative preschool, refused to punish two mothers for making comments that offended another mother. In April, the offended mother filed a “discrimination” complaint with RIC asking for “some action to be taken” against Church and others at the preschool. RIC college counsel Nicholas Long initially expressed reservations about the legality of proceeding with hearings regarding the complaint, but he later mysteriously reversed himself. RIC then advanced the formal hearing process, informing Church that she faced charges of “hostile environment racism.”

FIRE wrote to RIC President John Nazarian twice, each time asking him to call off the unconstitutional proceedings. FIRE reminded him that “[f]reedom of speech is protected at public institutions even if the speech is highly offensive or arouses people to anger,” and that “the defense of the right to free speech should never justify administrative investigations.” Read FIRE’s first [152 KB PDF] and second letters to RIC, and RIC’s response [114 KB PDF] to FIRE. The ACLU of Rhode Island also wrote to RIC in support of Professor Church, but Nazarian refused to stop the hearings. Read the ACLU’s letter here.

Although Associate Dean Kane appropriately recommended that the proceedings against Professor Church end, RIC still fails to understand the serious First Amendment issues present in this case. Immediately following the release of Kane’s decision, President Nazarian issued an e-mail to the RIC community stating that “the matter in question was not an issue of free speech, the First Amendment, academic freedom, discrimination, or censorship” and that RIC “actively supports free speech for all.”

“RIC is in denial,” stated FIRE’s French. “This case is entirely about the First Amendment. The initial complaint was filed because one person was offended by another person’s speech, and RIC acted on the complaint because it is governed by an unconstitutional speech code. Constitutional freedoms will never be secure at RIC until its policies change.”

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 RIC and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@thefire.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
John Nazarian, President, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8101; jnazarian@ric.edu
Scott Kane, Associate Dean for Student Life, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8061; skane@ric.edu

Schools: Rhode Island College