ACLU Calls on Rhode Island College to Revise Policies Infringing on Free Speech Rights

September 8, 2004 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI–On the heels of a recently publicized discrimination complaint against a professor at Rhode Island College, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today called on the college to immediately revise school policies that infringe on First Amendment rights by prohibiting “hate speech.”

“Asking professors to promote a positive climate free from discrimination is certainly an admirable objective, and one that should be encouraged,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “But to turn such an aspiration into an enforceable requirement, as the Rhode Island College has apparently done, is not only unrealistic but is fraught with significant implications for academic freedom and First Amendment rights on campus.”

The ACLU of Rhode Island said it learned about the college’s policies after professor Lisa Church appeared at a hearing last week on charges that she violated a college provision requiring personnel to ensure a climate “free from discrimination.”

The case stems from her handling of a situation last February when two students allegedly made racist remarks during a private dispute. Church was not present during the exchange, but a third student who was offended by the remarks complained to the professor. Church told the student she could not take action to discipline the other two students because it would violate their free speech rights. The offended student then filed a complaint against Church with the school’s Affirmative Action Office.

The ACLU noted that the chilling impact that these vague policies have on free speech is not limited to professors. According to the college’s current student guide, making judgments based on stereotypes or joking about a person’s gender, religion or ethnicity is a punishable offense under the anti-discrimination policies. The guide’s definition of prohibited racism includes even holding the “belief that all members of a particular ethnical cultural group are ‘experts’ on issues affecting that group.”

“It is truly shocking to read a college handbook that states that a student can be sanctioned for merely holding certain beliefs,” Brown said. “It is difficult to think of anything more subversive of a college’s true mission.”

The ACLU of Rhode Island has sent a letter asking Rhode Island College President John Nazarian to take immediate action to address these issues and not to await final resolution of the charges against Church. Specifically, the ACLU called on Nazarian to take three steps:

  • immediately begin a review of all college policies, procedures and other written materials that have the potential to impact freedom of speech on campus, and to revise them to address that impact;
  • promptly make clear to all college personnel and students that Rhode Island College is committed to robust freedom of speech on campus and that henceforth, no anti-discrimination policies will be interpreted or enforced in a way that impinges upon free speech rights;
  • halt any effort to punish Professor Church and declare that the charges against her simply are not sustainable under the First Amendment.

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