PROVIDENCE, R.I., October 1, 2004—In a welcome development for free speech on America's campuses, the faculty union at Rhode Island College (RIC) has filed a grievance challenging RIC's unconstitutional speech codes. Professor Jason Blank, president of the RIC/AFT Local 1819, filed the grievance in the wake of RIC's decision to subject Professor Lisa Church to disciplinary hearings for her refusal to punish constitutionally protected student speech.
"This is an important moment in the ongoing battle against speech codes. The RIC/AFT has recognized that speech codes not only violate Constitutional and moral principles, but also prevent professors from effectively doing their jobs," remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which advocated on behalf of Professor Church in the recent controversy.
Under intense public scrutiny as a result of FIRE's public campaign on behalf of Professor Church, the college decided to take no further action against her. RIC reached this decision, however, after trying her for "discrimination" because she refused to punish students for "offensive" comments they had allegedly made. See FIRE's previous coverage of this case.
In the union's newsletter, RIC/AFT President Blank and newsletter editor Professor Dan Weisman reminded the faculty that "[t]he fact that Dr. Church was exonerated does not change the fact that a clear message went out to students, faculty, staff, and the general community that RIC is a 'careful speech zone!' Those without tenure or planning to apply for promotions or sabbaticals know that they'd better watch their words or their careers here might be jeopardized."
Blank and Weisman also pointed out that Professor Church herself had recently chaired a disciplinary panel, and that her committee had recommended that the college bring its procedures in line with the Constitution and the union contract. Professor Weisman and the union had also expressed related concerns on a number of other occasions prior to Church's trial. However, RIC ignored all of these recommendations and eventually tried Church under the same faulty procedures to which she had advocated changes.
"Professor Church was dragged through an unjust, months-long disciplinary process—one that her own committee had previously determined to be unjust and invalid," commented Greg Lukianoff, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy. "We hope that the RIC/AFT's bold action in favor of due process and fundamental freedoms will encourage faculty unions across the country to take steps toward ensuring that their own members are never subjected to such Kafkaesque scenarios."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at RIC and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org/cases/rhode-island-college-punishment-of-professor-for-refusal-to-censor-speech/.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
John Nazarian, President, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8101; firstname.lastname@example.org