RIC hearing focuses on free speech

August 27, 2004

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island College will hold a hearing to determine whether a professor violated college policy for refusing to punish speech that many consider protected by the First Amendment — and prompting a national civil liberties advocacy group to cry foul.

 

The professor at the center the controversy, Lisa B. Church, could face disciplinary action for her alleged failure to appropriately respond to a student’s complaint. But the college insists that at this point, the hearing is merely a fact-finding proceeding “and discipline is not the focus of the complaint filed in this instance.”

 

The complaint against Church, a professor of accounting and computer information services, was brought to the college administration by a student-mother at RIC who claims that Church responded inappropriately when told about racist comments allegedly made by two other student-mothers who had children in RIC’s preschool. The professor was not present during the incident.

 

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit educational foundation that seeks to bring attention to violations of civil liberties on college campuses, the planned hearing at RIC stems from an incident on Feb. 19 “in which three mothers of students enrolled in RIC’s preschool engaged in a heated conversation about welfare and race. The argument ended abruptly when one mother took offense to statements made by the two other mothers that allegedly expressed negative opinions of interracial relationships and the belief that certain minority groups’ rights were valued over the rights of whites.”

 

According to FIRE — which says it is basing its information on oral and documentary information provided by Church — “the offended mother angrily left the preschool and reportedly ignored attempts at apologies.”

 

Nine days after the confrontation, the offended student complained to Church — who during the last academic year was the coordinator for the cooperative preschool, in addition to her teaching duties — and asked that the matter be discussed at a school meeting.

 

Church, who had not witnessed the conversation, told the complainant that since the issue involved a disagreement between private individuals, she thought the matter should be mediated and that a sensitivity training session should be held, says FIRE.

 

But according to FIRE, the offended student “insisted that Professor Church take disciplinary action against the other mothers involved, action that if taken by an employee of a public college such as Professor Church, would likely have violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.”

 

When Church declined to discipline the students who had allegedly uttered the racist comments, the offended student “accused her of discriminatory conduct” and a complaint was filed against her, a teacher at the preschool and the two other mothers alleging that they had violated college policies banning “hostile environment racism” and “intimidation.”

 

Church told FIRE that she was informed by Scott Kane, an associate dean for student life at RIC, that she was being accused of violating RIC’s policy on Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action, which states that the college “recognizes a higher order responsibility to create, promote and ensure a positive climate where individuals may learn, teach and work free from discrimination.”

 

According to FIRE, “Church objected, maintaining that to apply this policy to her situation would be unconstitutional — but to no avail.”

 

When Church sought further clarification of RIC’s policies from Patricia Giammarco, RIC’s director of affirmative action, she was told by Giammarco in an e-mail that “the college has a zero tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination” and that “on the college campus, certain types of remarks will not be tolerated, no matter what the intent.”

 

FIRE also obtained e-mail from Church authored by RIC’s general counsel, Nicholas T. Long, who said on July 21 that “college policies relating to discrimination . . . do not purport to set a standard that is different from the law.”

 

“Generally speaking, the expression of mere words does not constitute ‘discrimination’ . . . [and] mere expression of racist views or sexist views is rarely going to be actionable, however offensive it might be,” Long said in the same e-mail.

 

But FIRE says that “in a strange reversal” six days later, Long wrote another e-mail saying that “the complainant and the College are well served by following a process that allows a complainant to ‘tell their story’ ” at a hearing.

 

Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, says that “while RIC is free to prohibit true discrimination, it is not free to enforce a policy that violates the First Amendment by punishing either ‘offensive’ speech or the failure to censor that speech.”

 

David French, president of FIRE, said in an interview yesterday that by investigating something that is constitutionally protected — and then deciding to go forward to hold a hearing on the matter — chills free speech. Even if Church is not disciplined, holding a hearing “has a punitive effect,” French asserted. A professor should not be subjected to these kinds of processes just because he or she “has not suppressed constitutionally protected speech.”

 

Jane Fusco, spokesperson for RIC, said the college hoped to set a hearing date by Sept. 3 but took issue with some of FIRE’s assertions

 

“We’re not trying a professor for anything,” she said. “This is a matter that is just going through the college’s complaint resolution process. We don’t know if there’s any disciplinary action that needs to be taken at this point.”

 

“We need to hear from each side,” she said. Fusco said that discipline “could become a possibility” down the road, depending on the evidence presented but that the student, in her written complaint, did not ask that disciplinary action be taken against Church.

 

At this point,” Fusco said, “it’s basically a complaint, the way a consumer would file a complaint against a detergent company. We don’t know what this will lead to.” She said RIC wants “to make sure anyone feels comfortable bringing forward any type of complaint. . . .”

 

In a letter sent to Lukianoff Wednesday, RIC President John Nazarian said he shares FIRE’s “enthusiastic appreciation of the First Amendment and the need to guard vigorously the freedoms it ensures . . . Rhode Island College recognizes the value of the free marketplace of ideas and does not seek to censor the speech of any member of the community except in the most unusual circumstances,” he said.

 

Church has worked at RIC since January 2000 and earns $65,271 a year in her job there. She declined a request for an interview yesterday, saying FIRE would talk for her. “This matter has been exhausting and painful for my family and me,” she said in an e-mail.

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