RIC faculty union challenges policy limiting speech

By October 2, 2004

PROVIDENCE — Prompted by the recent furor over free speech at Rhode Island College, RIC’s faculty union has filed a grievance, asking that language it finds unconstitutional be removed from the college’s policies.


Sections of RIC’s equal-opportunity and affirmative action plan could have a chilling effect on free speech — the cornerstone of academic pursuit, said Prof. Daniel Weisman, a member of the union’s executive committee.


The college policy calls for “a positive climate where individuals may learn, teach and work free from discrimination”; and forbids “jokes or demeaning statements about a person’s gender, race/ethnicity, minorities, persons with disabling conditions or other disenfranchised groups,” as well as harassment, which can include sexual discrimination and “ethnic or racial slurs and other verbal . . . conduct related to a person’s race or national origin.”


While creating an environment that embraces tolerance and diversity is a worthwhile goal, restricting the First Amendment isn’t the way to achieve it, Weisman said.


“The objectives should be pursued without restricting free speech. That is not the solution; there are better solutions,” Weisman said.


The union filed the grievance a week ago with RIC and the Board of Governors for Higher Education, the entity that signs college contracts.


In response, RIC officials said they will follow the customary procedure for handling the grievance process, according to spokeswoman Jane Fusco. Since RIC did not respond to the grievance within seven days, the matter will pass through several administrative steps, Weisman said.


Fusco said that this semester, college President John Nazarian is appointing a committee of students, faculty and staff to review and recommend changes to college policy, in response to the controversy.


Earlier this year, RIC Prof. Lisa B. Church faced a disciplinary hearing and possible sanctions after she declined to report an allegedly racist remark made among students when she was not present. After public outcry, RIC dropped plans to hold the hearing and Nazarian said the 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.”


However, the language objectionable to Church and civil rights groups — including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors civil liberties on college campuses, and the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union — remains on the books.


“The reason why Professor Church had to go through the ordeal of the investigation and hearing process is because there exists an unconstitutional speech code,” said David French, president of the foundation. “Because that exists, other faculty members could suffer the same fate.”


Language restricting free speech should be removed, French said. He estimates about 70 percent of the 200 colleges and universities his group monitors have similarly unconstitutional language sprinkled throughout their polices and handbooks.


The grievance filed by RIC’s faculty union is one of the first in the country, French said.


“I would hope this would be an example to other faculty unions throughout the nation, that they should take a close look at their schools’ codes and recognize that such restrictions prevent their professors from doing their jobs,” French said. “Colleges are supposed to be the free marketplace of ideas dedicated to free speech and free inquiry. For a college to restrict that is appalling.”


Furthermore, the college’s polices are at odds with the faculty contract, Weisman said.


“Our contract has language that affirms academic freedom and the principles of academic free speech for the faculty,” Weisman said. The contract also states, “If there is any inconsistency or conflict between this agreement and the provisions found in the college handbook of policies, practices and regulations, or board policy, the provisions of this agreement shall apply. No organizations within the college may promulgate rules and/or regulations in conflict with this agreement.”

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Schools: Rhode Island College