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Rhode Island College violates freedom of conscience

Prospect Terrace Park view of the Providence skyline

PROVIDENCE, R.I., February 23, 2005—The School of Social Work at Rhode Island College (RIC) has threatened to reduce a student’s grades if he chooses not to lobby the Rhode Island legislature for policies with which he disagrees. Last fall, master’s student Bill Felkner received a failing grade after protesting a professor’s admitted bias in class and after writing an essay in connection with a lobbying assignment that dissented from that professor’s approved perspective. Felkner’s situation comes in the wake of RIC’s attempt to punish a professor for refusing to censor constitutionally protected speech.

“Nobody should be coerced by the state to advocate a cause he does not support,” stated David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which wrote RIC on behalf of Felkner. “RIC’s attempt to force an unwilling student to lobby for policies he opposes is outrageous and unconstitutional. It must end immediately.”

Bill Felkner’s trouble with the RIC School of Social Work began in Professor James Ryczek’s fall 2004 “Policy and Organizing” class. When Felkner wrote an e-mail to the professor about what he felt was liberal ideological bias at the school, Professor Ryczek responded, “I revel in my biases,” and added, “I think anyone who consistently holds antithetical views to those that are espoused by the profession might ask themselves whether social work is the profession for them.” Ryczek suggested that if Felkner did not agree with the school’s political philosophy, he should consider leaving or finding another line of work. After Felkner made Ryczek’s comments public, the professor refused to communicate any further with him through e-mail.

“Professor Ryczek’s comments suggest that RIC’s School of Social Work has a political loyalty test for social work students,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “As bad as it is for universities to tell students what they can’t say, it is even more threatening to liberty when they tell students what they must believe. Requiring ideological uniformity is the hallmark of an authoritarian society, not a free one.”

RIC’s infringement of Felkner’s rights continued after Ryczek’s e-mail. In class, Ryczek assigned students to form groups to lobby the Rhode Island legislature for social welfare programs from an approved list. If a student could not find a suitable social welfare topic on the list, he or she could also lobby for gay marriage. Felkner did not support any of these programs or issues and asked Ryczek if he could instead lobby against one of them or for the Academic Bill of Rights. This request was refused. Felkner then joined with and participated in a group, but wrote an individually graded paper that argued against his group’s position on the issue. Ryczek failed this paper, writing, “Regardless of the content, application of theory, and critical analysis, you did not write from the perspective you were required to use in this academic exercise. Therefore, the paper is must [sic] receive a failing grade.”

Felkner contacted FIRE about this pattern of ideological discrimination, and on January 28, 2005, FIRE wrote RIC President John Nazarian in protest of Ryczek’s unconstitutional enforcement of “ideological orthodoxy” at RIC. FIRE reminded Nazarian of the college’s attempt last year to punish a professor for refusing to censor student speech, and also noted that “[a]s an agency of the state government, RIC has a responsibility not to discriminate on the basis of political beliefs.”

In his February 15 response, President Nazarian denied that any student had been punished for his political views and stated that “no student has been obliged to lobby for a particular cause before the General Assembly.”

This is unacceptable. A misguided desire for uniformity of opinion must never take precedence over freedom of conscience.

According to Felkner, on February 17, 2005, he brought Nazarian’s letter to the attention of his new “Policy and Organizing” professor, Sue Pearlmutter, and suggested that instead of working with classmates to lobby for a cause with which he disagreed, he could complete the required assignment with students from other colleges to lobby for a cause with which he agreed. Professor Pearlmutter, after first agreeing to his request, later stated that his grade would be penalized if his group did not include other RIC “Policy and Organizing” students—all of whom were already involved in other groups. This left Felkner with two choices: to form his own group and face a grade reduction, or to join a group that would publicly promote social policies that go against his conscience.

“While professors may require students to work from a certain perspective as an academic exercise, RIC has required Felkner to do work that is intended to be used to lobby the legislature for policies he thinks are wrong,” noted FIRE’s Lukianoff. “No educational institution—especially if it is publicly supported—should force its students to lobby for policies with which they disagree.”

FIRE’s French added, “RIC has repeatedly placed Bill Felkner in situations where he faces punishment for not sharing the officially imposed views of the School of Social Work. This is unacceptable. A misguided desire for uniformity of opinion must never take precedence over freedom of conscience.”

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

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
John Nazarian, President, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8101;
James R. Ryczek, Professor, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8042;
Roberta S. Pearlmutter, Professor, Rhode Island College: 401-456-8864;

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