Rhode Island Supreme Court rules former grad student’s First Amendment case should go to trial

March 19, 2019

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled Monday that a former graduate student who accused Rhode Island College of violating his constitutional rights more than a decade ago — by requiring him to advocate for progressive policies with which he disagreed — will finally have his day in court.

FIRE, along with the Cato Institute and the National Association of Scholars, filed a friends-of-the-court brief with the state high court about the case in late 2016.

The case is notable not only for the allegations against RIC, but also for its exceptionally long timeline, which has spanned nearly 15 years. FIRE first wrote RIC back in January 2005 to express concern about the school’s treatment of the student.

Background

In the fall of 2004, William Felkner was a graduate student at RIC’s School of Social Work. After learning the school would be showing the movie “Fahrenheit 9/11, ” Felkner emailed professor James Ryczek, who taught Felkner’s “Policy and Organizing” class. Felkner expressed concerns about a possible liberal ideological bias in the school and asked if a movie with opposing views could also be shown. Ryczek responded that the school’s mission indeed suggested certain political biases.

“I revel in my biases,” Ryczek wrote at the time, telling Felkner he should consider leaving the program — or social work altogether.

“[A]nyone 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 wrote.

Later that semester, Felkner was given a failing grade for refusing to lobby the Rhode Island legislature for progressive social welfare programs he did not support. In our brief, we described how Felkner was required to lobby for such causes in multiple RIC courses:

The entirety of the record shows that Defendants required Felkner to engage in lobbying related to a partisan issue. While [Rhode Island College] social work students could choose among a range of issues to lobby the Rhode Island General Assembly, the Social Work 531 syllabus explicitly required students to engage in “policy advocacy” in order to “achieve social justice.” Roberta Pearlmutter, Felkner’s professor, testified in her affidavit that she “told [Felkner] that the organizing project needed to be related to the course subject matter.” James Ryczek, the Director of Field Education at Rhode Island College’s Social Work Program, testified at his deposition that social work students were required to lobby for a position chosen by the school, even if it conflicted with their personal beliefs. In fact, Ryczek admitted that students could not choose which position they would lobby for. (“Q. So, in other words, the school was going to tell them which position they had to lobby on. A. Yes.”).

Felkner’s refusal to abide by this requirement resulted in a grade reduction and a threat to remove him from RIC’s social work program. Pearlmutter told Felkner he would only be able to advocate in support of his preferred viewpoint if he found group members who shared that viewpoint. However, none of his classmates obliged, leaving Felkner forced to choose between sacrificing his First Amendment right against compelled speech or suffering a grade reduction. (“I finally agreed to let him do that [the lobbying project by himself] but advised him that it would adversely affect his grade because it would not be fulfilling an important element of the course requirement; group effort.”). Eventually, Felkner proceeded with the group assignment with participants who were not enrolled in the class; perhaps unsurprisingly, his failure to perform in accordance with class expectations resulted in a grade reduction. Ryczek then told Felkner that his refusal to lobby for the position chosen by the school would result in “not be[ing] able to meet the academic requirements necessary to obtain a degree.” This was confirmed by Felkner’s expert witness who testified that Felkner had to stay in the class and lobby for the required perspective in order to continue his academic career in social work at RIC. [Internal citations omitted.]

In 2007, Felkner filed suit against RIC as well as its then-president, the dean of the school of social work, and several professors, including Ryczek and Pearlmutter, in their individual capacities, alleging “that defendants’ conduct toward him during his enrollment in the MSW program violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

A superior court judge dismissed the case in 2015.

Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling

In yesterday’s ruling, the Rhode Island Supreme Court resurrected Felkner’s First Amendment claims, remanding the case back to the superior court for trial on those issues. As we wrote when we filed our brief:

[T]he trial court’s decision incorrectly relied in part on legal precedent governing students at public high schools, not students in master’s programs at public colleges. Moreover, we note that by requiring Felkner to publicly voice the school’s opinions as his own, the college’s actions violate longstanding First Amendment protections against compelled speech.

The Court’s Monday ruling explains why a jury should consider Felkner’s freedom of speech claims, and is worth quoting at length (with citations omitted):

[W]e are of the opinion that Felkner’s freedom of speech claims deserve to go to a jury. The record in this case is voluminous and replete with disputed facts. Resolving all such facts in the light most favorable to Felkner, the issue is whether he has made tenable claims that defendants have violated his constitutional rights to free speech and expression. We believe that he has.

[…]

The fact that a student may be required to debate a topic from a perspective that is contrary to his or her own views may well be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. That relationship is far more tenuous, however, when the student is told that he or she must then lobby for that position in a public forum or that his or her viewpoint is not welcome in the classroom because it is contrary to the majority viewpoint of the students and faculty.

There is ample evidence in the record which, if found credible by a factfinder, suggests that the MSW program had a strong predisposition toward so-called “progressive” social values.

Viewing, as we must, the evidence most generously to Felkner, we are of the opinion that, in light of his avowedly conservative bent, genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether defendants’ justifications for their actions were truly pedagogical or whether they were pretextual.

“I am pleased the court has recognized my claim of free speech infringement and I look forward to my day in court,” Felkner, now 55, told the Providence Journal after yesterday’s ruling.

According to the Journal:

He added that his oldest daughter is now 17 and looking at colleges. “[I]t would be nice to make sure RIC does not continue this discrimination for her generation.”

As we have done for more than a decade, FIRE will continue to bring you updates in this case.


Schools:  Rhode Island College

Cases:  Rhode Island College: Violation of Student’s Freedom of Conscience