That this happened at all is beyond insane. Though maybe not quite so much, when you actually stop to think about it.
According to this, back in 2004, William Felkner was a student at Rhode Island College majoring in social work. For one of his graduate projects, he was given the option to lobby the Rhode Island state legislature for either social welfare issues or the legalization of gay marriage. Since Felkner, as a conservative, was in favor of neither cause, he asked if he could do something else.
(Just a question: If you’re lobbying on behalf of certain pet causes, why in the world would you want to force someone to help you if they don’t agree with it? Wouldn’t you worry that they’d sabotage your cause? Or at least have put no heart or effort into it?)
At which point his professor told him that his conservative viewpoints had no business being in the field of social work and he probably should consider another profession. Apparently conservatives can’t do social work on behalf of kids in foster systems, or people with disabilities, or people battling addictions, or the hundreds of other good things that social workers do (I’m sure that would come as news to the people I know in social work who do have conservative opinions).
Felkner took his case to court and in 2007, a trial court ruled that Felkner had no case because he was a student and the school could do whatever they wanted (that’s the short version, anyway). Felkner teamed up with the Cato Institute to take this case to the Rhode Island Supreme court and now – a decade after the initial court ruling – they’ve said that Felkner was wrongly dealt with by the school, and that a college can’t fail a student academically, simply because an assignment goes against their personal beliefs –
The trial court also improperly applied a legal standard known as Hazelwood that’s only applicable below the college level, and which governs “school-sponsored expressive activities” by students, the brief says.
Felkner is in “essentially the same position as Hazelwood School District,” according to the groups.
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.”
So what does this mean for conservatives on campus now? (I HIGHLY doubt that progressive students are going to run into the same problem with conservative professors. Conservatives are generally more open-minded and tolerant of others, for better or worse.) Will other students be forced to take a failing grade or even change majors just because of one bigoted professor who’s forcing their views onto their students? Or will this mark a change in how conservative viewpoints are treated on campus?
It’s too early to say. But as insane and hostile as the current political climate is on college campuses, it’s going to take a lot more than one state’s supreme court ruling to do it. But it is a start in the right direction.