A professor at Rhode Island College this week goes before school officials who will determine if she violated campus policy by not taking action to punish someone for allegedly creating a “hostile” environment of “racism” and “intimidation.”
According to a statement from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, RIC will subject Professor Lisa B. Church to a hearing after a complaint was filed by a woman who was offended by the speech of two others.
Church, the coordinator for RIC’s preschool program, was not present when the three adults, all mothers of children in the program, engaged in a heated conversation about welfare and race. The argument ended abruptly, FIRE says, when one mother took offense to statements made by the two other mothers that allegedly expressed negative opinions of interracial relationships and the belief that certain minority groups’ rights were valued over the rights of whites. The offended mother angrily left the preschool and reportedly ignored attempts at apologies.
After an initial complaint from the offended mother, Church decided not to punish the other two moms, suggesting mediation and staff sensitivity training instead. The alleged victim then took her complaint to the college Affirmative Action Office, claiming discrimination and intimidation by Church.
“RIC is actually trying a professor for following the First Amendment,” said David French, president of FIRE, which wrote to the college on behalf of Church. “If professor Church had punished this person for making ‘offensive’ comments, she would have violated that person’s right to free speech. Professor Church is on trial for the offense of obeying the law.”
RIC’s director of affirmative action, Patricia Giammarco, was adamant in her e-mails to Church about the allegation.
“The college has a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination. …,” she wrote. “On the college campus, certain types of remarks will not be tolerated, no matter what the intent.”
Explained FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff: “While RIC is free to prohibit true discrimination, it is not free to enforce a policy that violates the First Amendment by punishing either ‘offensive’ speech or the failure to censor that speech.”
FIRE wrote to RIC President John Nazarian on Aug. 2, stating that an alleged failure to punish constitutionally protected expression is not an appropriate subject for investigation and trial. While RIC did not immediately respond to FIRE’s letter, the college did delay the formal hearing, originally set for August 3, until this week.
Related special offer: