Rhode Island College vs. Freedom—Again

By February 23, 2005

FIRE unfortunately often deals with colleges and universities that repeatedly violate the fundamental rights of students or faculty members. The shining example of this is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which keeps trampling on its students’ rights in almost the same way, confirming my suspicion as a Duke alumnus that UNC is up to no good. The University of Alabama also has been a notable example of a school that just seems unable to get a grasp on freedom. Yet a new contender for the title has arisen from the shores of the Ocean State—Rhode Island College (RIC).

Today’s press release details the latest denial of freedom at RIC. Last year, RIC tried to punish a professor for refusing to punish constitutionally protected student speech. FIRE intervened, and now RIC is investigating its policies to ensure that they comply with the U.S. Constitution (and FIRE is monitoring RIC closely to make sure that the changes it makes are constitutional). The new case has to do a violation by RIC’s School of Social Work of the freedoms of speech and of conscience in the case of master’s student Bill Felkner. FIRE’s press release has the details, which I won’t repeat here.

Felkner’s story spells out a pattern of ideological discrimination that is all too prevalent in many academic departments and schools today. The real genesis of Felkner’s problem is that he believes that some government social welfare programs—specifically, some programs that RIC’s social work faculty supports—don’t help the poor, and, more generally, that he is more “conservative” in his views than the average social worker. RIC’s School of Social Work has made it quite clear that holding beliefs not in lockstep with those of the school is out of bounds, and it is backing up this stance with real penalties.

RIC’s School of Social Work seems to have decided that while a little policy debate might be acceptable inside the school, RIC students must present a united and liberal political front outside the school. For a state-supported school to force students to essentially volunteer for the Democratic Party is grossly inappropriate. I wonder—how would RIC’s social work faculty feel if the University of Rhode Island forced its students to work for President Bush’s social-security reform proposal? I would welcome anyone out there to tell us how this would be different from RIC’s current policy—but I’m not holding my breath.

Schools: Rhode Island College University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill