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.