RIC drops complaint against professor

September 12, 2004

Rhode Island College has dropped a discrimination complaint against a professor who refused to discipline two students who allegedly made racist remarks.

The professor, Dr. Lisa Church, had told the school it should drop the complaint, made by a student, arguing she did not violate school discrimination policies or other standards.

After conducting a closed hearing Sept. 3 – at which both Church and a student complainant testified – Associate Dean Scott Kane recommended the complaint be dropped.

“It was determined at the first level of the process that the matter in question was not an issue of free speech, the First Amendment, academic freedom, discrimination or censorship,” said college President John Nazarian in a statement.

The discrimination complaint stems from an incident on Feb. 19, when two students, with children in RIC’s preschool, allegedly made racist remarks regarding welfare benefits in conversation with a third student-mother.

Church, who was the coordinator for the cooperative preschool, wasn’t present for the conversation, but the offended student complained to her and asked her to discipline the two others.

Church said she couldn’t have done so without violating those students’ free speech rights. The offended student brought a complaint to school administrators.

“I acted both reasonably and responsibly in refusing to consider any kind of punishment of anyone involved in the conversation,” Church said in a letter to the administration. “To have punished the participants in the conversation in any way for their offensive remarks would have been to violate their First Amendment rights, and would have put both myself and the college at grave risk of a lawsuit.”

Kane said that while it was “distressing” that the students’ comments were “so misinformed … they had a right to possess and express their opinion, however unfounded and offensive.”

Civil liberties advocacy groups, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, joined Church in her effort to have the college stop pursuing the complaint, which they said had no merit.

“While the decision (to now drop the case) is welcome news for Professor Church and her family, RIC still has not recognized the unconstitutionality and injustice of its actions,” FIRE President David French told The Providence Journal.

“RIC was clearly trying someone for ‘discrimination’ for refusing to punish another person’s speech. This hearing never should have happened.

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Schools: Rhode Island College Cases: Rhode Island College: Punishment of Professor for Refusal to Censor Speech