by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest Forbes column focuses on a Rhode Island case involving a college student challenging his school’s requirement that he engage in “social justice” activism.
Another case showing the authoritarianism that increasingly characterizes the professoriate involves the master’s program in social work at Rhode Island College (RIC). A student who did not believe that lobbying the state legislature for “progressive” causes was properly a part of his education and suffered for it filed suit against the school in state court.
This remarkable case started way back in 2004, when William Felkner, a graduate student in the college’s social work program, objected to its internship requirement that called for all students to work to “advance social change.” To the faculty, that meant advocating the sorts of “progressive” policies they favor, but the conservative Felkner did not care to advocate policies that he found philosophically repugnant. He therefore accepted instead an internship in the administration of then-governor Donald Carcieri, a Republican.
That bit of independence was too much for the Professor James Ryczek who reported his defiance to the chair of the Master’s in Social Work Program, Lenore Olsen. She then informed Felkner that he could no longer pursue his degree at RIC. …
… Felkner filed suit against the college in Rhode Island superior court in December, 2007, where the legal skirmishing lasted for years. Finally, in October 2015, the judge dismissed his complaint. Was she right to do so?
Arguing that she was not and that the Rhode Island Supreme Court should take the case are FIRE, Cato Institute, and the National Association of Scholars. In their amicus brief to the Court, those organizations contend that the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence makes it clear that the college (which is a state entity) trampled on Felkner’s rights.
“The entirety of the record shows that Defendants required Felkner to engage in lobbying related to a partisan issue,” the brief states. “While RIC 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.’”