The government can’t force people to promote messages they disagree with, even when – particularly when – the government actors are public university professors and the speaker is a student who needs to pass certain classes to get a degree.
William Felkner, a self-identified “conservative libertarian,” studied social work at Rhode Island College, a state school. His views unsurprisingly clashed with those of his professors, who consider the social work course – and the profession itself – to be “devoted to the value of social and economic justice.” In keeping with this philosophy, one of his professors assigned him to lobby the state legislature for a progressive bill.
Felkner refused to speak against his beliefs by lobbying in favor of progressive legislation. His term paper instead reflected his honest opinion of the bill. As a result, his professor gave him a failing grade and Felkner ultimately never completed the program.
That incident, in addition to a long string of events in which professors disparaged Felkner’s politics and tried to stifle his opinions, led him to sue the college. He argued, among several claims, that the school infringed on his right to free speech, compelled him to speak against his conscience, and placed unconstitutional conditions on his earning his degree.
Conservatives and libertarians are often pushed out of progressive academic circles by faculty or administrators. For private universities, such behavior is alarming and worth counteracting, but mostly comes down to academic freedom. Public institutions like Rhode Island College are government actors, however, and must afford students the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution, especially the freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has long understood that the First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling an individual to express an opinion that violates his or her conscience.
Nevertheless, the lower state court was not convinced that the school compelled Felkner to speak and found that the school’s actions did not violate his constitutional rights. On appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Cato filed an amicus brief, arguing that students don’t shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse door.
In a decision released on Monday, the state supreme court agreed, reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the school on several claims and allowing the case to go to trial. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Rhode Island Supreme Court explained that schools and teachers have broad authority to exercise “editorial control” over student speech “so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” However, a teacher can’t limit student speech as a punishment for a student’s political views. The court held that Felkner raised legitimate issues of material fact – meaning that a jury will get to decide whether in fact the professors’ and administrators’ actions were appropriate (unless the college now decides to settle with Mr. Felkner, which is what I would advise if I were its lawyer).
Proponents of free speech should regard this as a win for students’ First Amendment rights on college campuses. The court’s decision here comes not a moment too soon, as schools increasingly attempt to silence students and regulate their speech. As a procedural matter, it also bodes well that state supreme courts still adhere to the “material facts in dispute” standard for summary judgment.
In sum, no person in a public university, whether a student or a teacher, should be forced to say something that they find objectionable, and the case of Felkner v. Rhode Island College stands in recognition of that important principle.