PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island College has decided not to proceed with any “further formal action” in a case brought against Lisa B. Church, a professor at the college who was summoned to a hearing last week to determine whether she had violated college policy by refusing to punish speech that many consider protected by the First Amendment.
After conducting a closed hearing Sept. 3 — at which both Church and a student complainant testified — Associate Dean Scott Kane recommended to higher-ups that the complaint be dismissed.
According to a statement released by RIC President John Nazarian, “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.
“Rhode Island College actively supports the right to free speech for all and does not discourage students, faculty, staff or any member of the college community from expressing their thoughts or concerns on any matter,” Nazarian said.
The complaint against Church, a professor of accounting and computer-information services, was brought by a student-mother who claims that Church responded inappropriately when told about racist comments made by two other student-mothers who had children at RIC’s preschool. The professor, who was the school’s coordinator, was not present when the offensive remarks were made.
According to an internal RIC report written by Kane, the complaint came on the heels of a conversation involving three student-mothers at the preschool on Feb 19. “Two of the mothers opined that in their personal experience, ‘Spanish people and blacks’ received more and better welfare benefits than whites and that this was the result of the welfare system’s bias against whites.” According to Kane, the third student-mother, who is white and married to an African-American, “disputed this assertion” and said that one of the other mothers “responded by expressing her disapproval of ‘making interracial children.’ “
The offended student asked Church to place the matter on the agenda for a school meeting, but Church and a teacher at the school told her it was a private matter that should be mediated and that it was not germane to the school as a whole. Kane said they subsequently changed their minds and the matter was discussed at a school meeting and a sensitivity workshop was also held.
Kane said that the complainant “was appropriately offended” by the initial decision not to have a discussion of the incident at a school meeting but that he did not believe that Church’s behavior “was racially discriminatory or motivated by racial animus.”
Kane also said that while it is “distressing” that the two students’ comments are “so misinformed . . . they had a right to possess and express their opinion, however unfounded and offensive.”
Even though RIC has now dismissed the complaint against Church, two civil-liberties advocacy groups — the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union — Friday criticized the college for even entertaining the student’s complaint and holding an initial hearing.
“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,” said David French, president of FIRE. “RIC was clearly trying someone for ‘discrimination’ for refusing to punish another person’s speech. This hearing never should have happened.”
French asserted that RIC “is governed by an unconstitutional speech code.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter, echoed French’s remarks, adding, “The dismissal of the charges against Professor Church has done nothing to allay our concerns about the disturbingly enormous breadth of the college’s various ‘hate speech’ provisions.”