This Month in FIRE History: Rhode Island College Threatens to Punish Professor for Refusing to Censor Protected Speech

August 7, 2006

This month, back in 2004, Rhode Island College (RIC) threatened to try a professor for violations of college policies banning “hostile environment racism” and “intimidation” for refusing to punish speech protected by the First Amendment.

The debacle began with a heated argument about welfare and race that took place between three mothers whose children were enrolled in RIC’s preschool. The argument ended with one mother becoming offended by the other mothers’ statements allegedly expressing negative opinions of interracial relationships and the belief that certain minority groups’ rights were valued over the rights of whites.

The offended mother insisted that Professor Lisa B. Church, an administrator for RIC’s cooperative preschool program who was not present for the altercation, take disciplinary action against the other mothers involved. When Professor Church declined, the offended woman accused her of discriminatory conduct. Professor Church was subsequently informed 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.

FIRE wrote to RIC President John Nazarian on August 2, 2004, reminding him that an alleged failure to punish constitutionally protected expression is not an appropriate subject for investigation and trial. FIRE wrote to President Nazarian again on September 3, 2004– this time in an open letter to President Nazarian and the entire RIC community–urging him to "end this unfair, unjust, and unconstitutional inquiry into a professor’s defense of our common liberties."

On September 9. 2004, RIC Associate Dean Scott Kane finally recommended that the proceedings against Professor Church end. However, the College never acknowledged the illiberal error of beginning the proceedings in the first place. Instead, President Nazarian denied that the ordeal was in any way related to the First Amendment– a denial that swiftly prompted scorn and anger from FIRE, the Rhode Island ACLU, and the RIC faculty union.

FIRE will not forget what happened to Professor Lisa Church at RIC, and will continue to actively challenge any threats to individual rights there. If your individual rights are under attack at your college or university, please contact FIRE.