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This Month in FIRE History: Rhode Island College, Round 1

Well, it’s August again, and apparently that means it’s time for FIRE and Rhode Island College to have it out.
This time last year, FIRE was engaged in a public battle for the rights of RIC professor Lisa Church, who faced a trial for not punishing two adults for making “offensive” comments she did not even hear. Yes, you read right: Professor Church got guff from RIC administrators for upholding the First Amendment. As we wrote in an August 2004 press release:

The planned hearing stems from an incident on February 19, 2004, 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. The offended mother angrily left the preschool and reportedly ignored attempts at apologies. Professor Church did not witness the conversation.

On February 27, the offended woman brought the incident to Professor Church’s attention, requesting that the matter be discussed at a school meeting. Since the issue involved a disagreement between private individuals, Professor Church instead suggested mediation among the parties and a sensitivity training session for the staff. The offended woman 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 Professor Church declined, the offended woman accused her of discriminatory conduct. On April 30, Associate Dean for Student Life Scott Kane informed Professor Church that a complaint had been filed with the RIC Affirmative Action Office alleging discrimination and intimidation by Professor Church, the two other mothers involved in the initial conversation, and a teacher at the preschool.

Associate Dean Kane told Professor Church that she was 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.” Professor Church objected, maintaining that to apply this policy in her situation would be unconstitutional—but to no avail.
Professor Church sought further clarification of RIC’s policies from Patricia Giammarco, RIC’s director of affirmative action, in a meeting and a series of e-mails. Unfortunately, Giammarco’s understanding of the law was no better. In a July 19 e-mail, Giammarco wrote, “The College has a zero tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination…[O]n the college campus, certain types of remarks will not be tolerated, no matter what the intent.” She also implied that RIC may ignore constitutional requirements by repeatedly emphasizing that RIC’s hearings were “not a court of law.”

Of course, these administrators’ comments were chilling. The press understood that, and we won.
But it’s also not terribly surprising that RIC higher-ups would think such ridiculous things, given the way they are now treating School of Social Work grad student Bill Felkner. RIC tried to force Felkner to lobby the Rhode Island Legislature for policies with which he disagreed and then told him he was only allowed to have a “progressive” policy internship, despite the fact that he disagrees vehemently with progressive policies. After instead getting an internship with which his conscience could be comfortable, Felkner was told in May that he could no longer pursue his degree. He has no idea what (or if) he will be studying this fall.
RIC has so far refused to back down in the Felkner case—which is why I imagine August and September of 2005 will be FIRE vs. RIC, Round 2. As Alan Charles Kors always points out, universities cannot defend in public what they do in private, and RIC’s actions over the past year have been particularly indefensible.

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