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ACLU criticizes college's free-speech policies

By The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island College said it would review its policies governing free speech after the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union charged they created a “conformist atmosphere.”

The ACLU said RIC’s 2004-05 new student guide allows for a student to be sanctioned for holding certain beliefs. Among the type of speech mentioned by the school as possibly punishable are jokes about a person’s gender, religion or ethnicity and judgment based on stereotypes of women and other protected groups.

“It is truly shocking to read a college handbook that holds that a student can be sanctioned for merely holding certain beliefs,” wrote Steven Brown, executive director of the state ACLU, in a letter to RIC President John Nazarian.

“It is difficult to think of anything more subversive of a college’s true mission,” Brown added.

Nazarian told The Providence Journal the college was committed to free speech, but he was not familiar with the restrictions detailed in the new student guide. “I don’t think I have a comment at this point,” Nazarian said. Other RIC administrators said they would review the ACLU’s comments and change their policies if necessary.

The ACLU learned of the passages in the student handbook during a review of a discrimination case brought against professor Lisa Church.

The complaint stems from an incident on Feb. 19, when two students, with children in RIC’s preschool, allegedly made racist remarks in conversation with a third student-mother. An offended student complained to Church. Church, who was not present during the exchange, said she couldn’t take the matter to school officials without violating those students’ free-speech rights.

School officials are discussing how to proceed on the matter.

(Editor’s Note: RIC has dropped the discrimination complaint against Church. After conducting a closed hearing on Sept. 3 — at which both Church and a student complainant testified — Associate Dean Scott Kane recommended that the complaint be dropped. “It was determined at the first level of the process that the matter in question was not an issue of free speech, the First Amendment, academic freedom, discrimination or censorship,” Nazarian said in a statement.)


Education Department clarifies position on campus speech

Letter: Colleges shouldn't use federal regulations barring harassment of students to trample First Amendment rights. 08.14.03

Political correctness squelching campus speech, group says
Watchdog organization FIRE tells Senate committee that efforts to promote diversity, sensitivity are restricting intellectual discourse. 10.30.03

Hate speech & campus speech codes

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