In the fall of 2004, Rhode Island College tried to compel graduate student William Felkner to lobby the state General Assembly in support of a social welfare bill he personally opposed. After Felkner refused, an instructor in the School of Social Work gave Felkner a failing grade and told him his decision would result in “not be[ing] able to meet the academic requirements necessary to obtain a degree.” Felkner sued the college and its officials for violating his First Amendment rights by compelling him to lobby in support of social welfare reforms with which he disagreed.
The case made its way to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. In 2016, FIRE filed an amicus brief in support of Felkner arguing that the First Amendment does not allow a public college to compel students to lobby against their beliefs. The Rhode Island Supreme Court agreed and overruled the trial court, ruling that Felkner’s evidence demonstrated a violation of his First Amendment rights. However, on remand, the trial court granted defendants qualified immunity on the theory that Felkner’s claims amounted to a mere academic dispute, not a violation of his First Amendment rights.
On June 7, 2022, FIRE filed another amicus brief supporting Felkner’s appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. FIRE argued in the brief that the Court should deny Defendants qualified immunity because, at the time of their actions, the law was clearly established that students have the right to be free from retaliation for refusing to publicly speak against their own beliefs. Rhode Island appellate attorney Thomas M. Dickinson, acting as local counsel, filed the brief on FIRE’s behalf.