An Open Letter to President John Nazarian and Rhode Island College
September 3, 2004
Dear President Nazarian and the Rhode Island College Community:
Today marks the deadline for Professor Lisa Church to set up a meeting with Rhode Island College officials about her handling of an incident that has been much in the news in recent days. As you know, Dr. Church refused a request to punish two mothers for offensive remarks they allegedly made at RIC's cooperative preschool. The offended person, a student and mother at RIC, charged Dr. Church with "discrimination" for her failure to punish the people who allegedly made the remarks. Despite Dr. Church's reasonable attempts to handle the offended person's concerns and the clarity of the constitutional rights she upheld, the college is moving ahead with proceedings against herâ€"proceedings that President Nazarian has acknowledged could result in punishment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has addressed RIC's arguments for proceeding against Dr. Church in two detailed letters available online at www.thefire.org. In RIC's response to our first letter, President Nazarian wrote that the college is obligated to investigate this claim and any other claim made by a student. RIC has no more obligation to investigate this claim than it would to investigate an accusation that a professor having pro-union beliefs has engaged in "harassment" against students around him for merely possessing those beliefs. The speech that Dr. Church refused to punish is as protected as is the expression of each of RIC's faculty members, and the defense of the right to free speech should never justify administrative investigations.
There is nothing here to investigate. Dr. Church uttered no offensive words, took no discriminatory action, and upheld her legal duties under the Constitution of the United States with care and integrity. Her actions spared the college serious legal liability and probable public ridicule. By continuing its investigation into her actions, RIC pits itself squarely against the Bill of Rights.
President Nazarian, today you have the opportunity to undo an injustice that has plagued a loyal member of the RIC community for far too long. Please end the investigation of Professor Lisa Church. Dr. Church has been steadfast in her defense of our basic freedoms. She understands that the refusal to punish speech does not signify the endorsement of what is said. She has shown faith in the "marketplace of ideas" as the appropriate place to deal with offensive opinions and in the ability of open discussions to succeed where threats of punishment fail. We ask RIC to show a similar faith in these principles and to end this unfair, unjust, and unconstitutional inquiry into a professor's defense of our common liberties. It is our deepest hope that RIC will do the right thing by vindicating the rights of Dr. Church, and thereby the rights of all students and faculty members of Rhode Island College.
We hope to hear the administration's decision by 5 p.m. today.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education