Rhode Island College Continues Campaign Against Conservative Social Work Student

By May 26, 2005

PROVIDENCE, R.I., May 26, 2005—Rhode Island College’s (RIC’s) School of Social Work is requiring a conservative master’s student to publicly advocate for “progressive” social changes if he wants to continue pursuing a degree in social work policy. RIC’s appalling disregard for student Bill Felkner’s freedom of conscience is the latest in an ongoing string of abuses by RIC administrators and faculty members that violate the right to fundamental freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“FIRE has dealt with hundreds of cases, but we have never seen anything quite like this,” stated David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has written to RIC on Felkner’s behalf and which last year defended RIC Professor Lisa Church when she was put on trial for refusing to censor constitutionally protected speech. French continued, “These relentless, ham-handed attempts to force Bill Felkner to advocate a certain political agenda are brazenly unconstitutional at a public institution such as RIC.”

RIC’s campaign against Felkner began in Fall 2004 when social work professor Jim Ryczek suggested to Felkner in an e-mail that if he did not agree with the school’s political philosophy, he should consider leaving or finding another line of work. Shortly afterwards, Felkner learned that RIC’s School of Social Work not only recommended that he adopt a particular ideology but also mandated that he lobby the Rhode Island Legislature for one of several policy positions that he did not support. FIRE protested this action, and—despite an assurance from RIC President John Nazarian that “no student has been obliged to lobby for a particular cause before the General Assembly”—Felkner reports that Professor Sue Pearlmutter told him that his grade would be affected if he chose to lobby for an alternative policy position.

RIC’s most recent offense against the U.S. Constitution stems from its policy internship requirements for graduate students. There are eleven general requirements that every internship must meet—and six of these require that students work towards advancing “progressive” policies such as “progressive social change.” Felkner, who refused to accept an internship that would force him to promote policies he opposed, instead accepted an internship in the policy department of Republican Rhode Island Governor Donald L. Carcieri’s office. Ryzcek reported Felkner’s refusal to work for “progressive” policies to Lenore Olsen, the chair of the Master’s of Social Work Program. Olsen subsequently informed Felkner in a letter that he could no longer pursue a master’s degree in social work policy.

“RIC, as a state college, simply may not require its students to publicly advocate for social changes they don’t believe in—‘progressive’ or otherwise,” noted FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Forcing a person to publicly state one thing when he or she privately believes something else is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. It is shocking that President Nazarian would allow this.”

RIC School of Social Work professors’ and administrators’ hostility towards Felkner came to a head in April 2005, when Felkner faced a disciplinary hearing for allegedly violating the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Conduct. The tribunal admitted that it “was not convinced” that Felkner had violated sections on respect and confidentiality, but found Felkner guilty of “deception” for recording an in-person conversation with Professor Pearlmutter. Felkner agreed not to record any more conversations, but maintained that he had recorded the conversation because he felt that RIC faculty members were being evasive or dishonest in their communications with him. For instance, at one point both Professors Pearlmutter and Ryczek refused to communicate with Felkner over e-mail after he had posted some of their comments on the Internet in an attempt to expose RIC’s political bias.

“It is time for President Nazarian to wake up to the startling abuses of power going on at RIC,” said FIRE’s French. “From allowing a professor to go on trial for refusing to censor speech to allowing ideological coercion to continue, President Nazarian has done virtually nothing to rein in his subordinates whose contempt for fundamental constitutionally protected freedoms is clear. RIC is courting disaster,” he concluded.

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
Lenore Olsen, Chair, Master’s of Social Work Program, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8042; lolsen@ric.edu

Schools: Rhode Island College