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ACLU Calls on Rhode Island College to Immediately Revise “Hate Speech” Policies

Posted: September 08, 2004|Category: Free Speech

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In response to the recently-publicized “discrimination” complaint filed against Rhode Island College Professor Lisa Church, the ACLU has called on RIC President John Nazarian to immediately address the “broader issues and concerns that her case has raised” by revising the college’s policies that prohibit “hate speech.” Professor Church had an administrative hearing last week on charges that she violated a college provision requiring personnel to “create, promote and ensure a positive climate where individuals may learn, teach and work free from discrimination.” The charge arose when she refused to intervene in a private dispute in which racist comments were allegedly made by one parent of a child to another at the college’s Cooperative Preschool, which Church helps to coordinate.

In a three page letter to President Nazarian, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said: “Asking professors to promote a positive climate free from discrimination is certainly an admirable objective, and one that should be encouraged. But to turn such an aspiration into an enforceable requirement, as the College has apparently done, is not only unrealistic but, as Professor Church’s case demonstrates all too clearly, fraught with significant implications for academic freedom and First Amendment rights on campus.” Brown also pointed to remarks by RIC’s Director of Affirmative Action – that “derogatory comments” about protected groups “are not open for debate” – as highlighting the “troubling and seemingly open-ended nature” of the College’s discrimination guidelines.

The letter further points out that “the chilling impact that these vague policies have on free speech is not limited to professors.” The College’s Student Guide includes in its description of punishable “discrimination” or “racism” any jokes about a person’s gender, religion or ethnicity, and “judgments based on stereotypes of women” or other protected groups. The Guide’s definition of prohibited racism includes even the “belief that all members of a particular ethnical cultural group are ‘experts’ on issues affecting that group.” Any incidents of “racism,” according to the Guide, “will not be tolerated in any form” and should be brought to the attention of the Director of Affirmative Action “so that they can be immediately addressed.” The ACLU’s letter called it “truly shocking to read a college handbook that holds that a student can be sanctioned for merely holding certain beliefs. It is difficult to think of anything more subversive of a college’s true mission.”

The letter concluded by stating that “action to address these issues cannot and should not await final resolution of the charges against Professor Church.” The letter called on Nazarian to take three steps: (1) to “immediately begin a review of all college policies, procedures and other written materials – including those brought to light in this case – that have the potential to impact freedom of speech on campus, and to revise them to address that impact”; (2) to “promptly make clear to all college personnel and students that RIC 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”; and (3) should there be any administrative appeal in the Church hearing, to “intervene and halt any such effort by declaring that the charges against her simply are not sustainable under the First Amendment.”

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