The Meaning Of “Social” In Social Work

William Felkner wanted to be a social worker, so he attended Rhode Island College to get his graduate degree. The course of study didn’t turn out quite as expected.

More than 12 years after William Felkner was forced to choose between staying in his graduate program and obeying his conscience, the former student has a chance to protect the First Amendment rights of students nationwide.

That’s according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed last month by the Cato Institute, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and National Association of Scholars in Felkner’s lawsuit against Rhode Island College, a public institution.

Part of the curriculum, it turned out, involved lobbying for causes. Not Felkner’s causes. Not causes Felkner believe in or agreed with. Not that his professor gave a damn.

Students in the Social Work Policy and Organizing program were given the option to lobby for social welfare issues or the legalization of gay marriage.

When Felkner expressed his dismay, a professor suggested in an email that he should consider a different profession due to his conservative leanings.

One of the program’s requirements was an internship that promoted an even further progressive agenda. When Felkner refused to participate in one of the suggested internships, the chair of the Master of Social Work Department told him he would be dismissed from the program.

You agree with the causes? That’s great. it’s perfectly fine to believe that these are great causes, wonderful causes. But to compel someone who does not to espouse them as a condition of remaining in an educational program? That’s not so great.

For some, the issue is resolved by their belief that there can be no “right” thing to do other than to believe in the causes forced upon Felkner. After all, they’re right, so how could it possibly be wrong? The answer is compelled speech.

The Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held that the government cannot compel an individual to lobby in support of a position with which he or she disagrees. See, e.g., United Foods, Inc., 533 U.S. at 410. The trial justice failed to properly review the evidence and erroneously concluded that Felkner’s First Amendment rights were not violated even though he was compelled to lobby against his beliefs.

While much is made of academic freedom for professors, precious little concern goes into the beliefs of students. Despite the efforts of colleges to force their values down people’s throats by tireless indoctrination, some students nonetheless refuse to embrace their pedagogues’ causes. The profs may rail, properly, against administrative efforts to silence their beliefs, but they see no issue forcing them down their students’ throats as a condition of education.

This raises a curious dilemma, as to whether the speech required of the student compels the student to appear as if the school’s views are his, or the school’s corollary concern that the student’s view taints the school.

Rhode Island College ordered him to lobby for the program’s ideological view, outside the classroom, creating “the risk that people who were not involved with the class would view Felkner’s speech as his own opinions.”

In a blog post, Cato’s Ilya Shapiro says the trial court conflated a school’s right to “restrict children’s speech that the public might reasonably perceive to be the school’s speech” with the college’s demand that Felkner, a grown man, “profess a certain political ideology.”

Or as Ilya expressed the Hazelwood problem:

While a school can properly restrict children’s speech that the public might reasonably perceive to be the school’s speech, it can’t require students to profess a certain political ideology—and there’s even less leeway if the students are adults.

Where Hazelwood involved a high school newspaper, where readers might attribute editorial control to the school, Felkner was a college grad student, whose opinions would be expected to be his own. To require Felkner to spout, if not accept, beliefs that were contrary to his own reflected a very different concern, and the court’s reliance on Hazelwood to justify a college’s compelling Felker to go out into the world to proselytize his profs’ politics found no comfort under Hazelwood.

There are functionally two issues at stake here, the obvious being compelled speech under the First Amendment. But the less obvious issue is more nefarious, that academics view their political beliefs to be so correct, so absolute and irrefutable, that there can be no legitimate disagreement. Thus, any student who doesn’t share their views is too wrong, too stupid, to survive their course, and has no business in college.

13 comments on “The Meaning Of “Social” In Social Work

  1. Wilbur

    That e-mail from Jim (how the good professor signed it) is a doozy. I do appreciate his honesty in stating that he is indeed biased, but it’s OK because his world view is the correct one.

    Well, of course. Who could take issue with that?

    I will sadly agree with him that Felkner has no chance surviving in the social worker world, such as it is, and would do everyone a favor by getting the hell out now before they kick him out.

    1. SHG Post author

      Somehow, somewhere, someone might need a social worker like Felkner. And there won’t be one to be found.

  2. Billy Bob

    Felkner has big hands to take on Rhode Island College. Many questions come to mind: Why couldn’t Felkner just issue a disclaimer that these were not his personal views, that he was doing these lobbying things–whatever they were–as a course requirement? In other words play-acting, or assuming a role in the theater. Just play the game young laddie and get on with it! But nooo, he has to make a federal/state issue out of the whole bloody thing. We wonder who put him up to it. Any other student would have dropped it, or dropped out.

    This would appear to be a case he should win, especially with Cato’s backing. But will probably lose, because, well,… whenever an individual plaintiff bumps up against an institution, agency or corporation, he normally loses. That’s just how it works. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. If you’re pro se, you automatically lose. They won’t read your brief. Maybe they “look” at it. Ha. Once you hit the oral arguments, you realize the justices did not read your brief and don’t have a bloody clue.

    If William changed his name to *Faulkner*, he might find life a little easier. Wait,… maybe it was Faulkner and he changed it to Felkner to avoid the confusion! Never heard of Rhode Island College till now. This little dust-up may put it “on the map.” Not the Google Map, it’s already there.

    1. SHG Post author

      Why didn’t he just go to another school? Or space aliens? Or become a gender studies major? Any other bright ideas, Bill? No, never mind. Forget I asked.

    2. PVanderwaart

      My reaction was pretty much opposite. RIC is a state institution, under the aegis of the state Dept. of Education. Their legal advisers ought to be saying “Guys, you can’t be compelling speech, especially on political matters.”

      This situation is not limited to the social worker context. I can easily imagine a computer science student being expected to put in hours on a project funded by the DoD, and intended for a purpose he finds repugnant.

  3. DaveL

    If you’re pro se, you automatically lose. They won’t read your brief.

    Do you happen to have a lot of personal experience with unsuccessful pro se litigation?

    1. SHG Post author

      Let me guess. You meant that as a reply to Bill, but the sun was in your eyes when you went to hit the reply button, so instead, it’s a new thread that has nothing to do with the post whatsoever? Amirite?

      1. wild bill

        We’ve been thru this so many times, I lost count. Resisting the urge to turn this into “All-about-me” rant. Getting off to a baaad start this year. Dow Jones, down 2000 soon.

          1. Billy Bob

            Ah, stock market soothsayer, are ye?! There is a side of you we did not know or suspect, but we flushed it out. Ha. Hate to admit, but you may be right as rain.

  4. Lucas Beauchamp

    “Social worker, my older child was suspended from the first grade, I just had a baby with a disability, and their father lost his job to a robot.”

    “No problem. In my internship I learned to integrate assessments of knowledge, values, politics, and economics surrounding social welfare problems into planning, implementing and evaluating organizing and policy practice interventions.”

  5. B. McLeod

    This professor wants to perpetuate “social work” as a field, so he can’t allow a word to be spoken against the welfare system that has lulled generations into complacent dependency for subsistence level doles.

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