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Columbia Missourian

Former student sues R.I. social work school

December 14, 2008 | 3:45 p.m. CST

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A former student has sued the Rhode Island College School of Social Work saying he was punished for his conservative views.

William Felkner said after enrolling in 2004, he realized he would have to adopt a left-wing ideology to get a master's degree.

Felkner, 45, said the schoolofficials discriminated against him by penalizing his grades, filing ethics charges and delaying his graduation. He also said they denied him a chance to work on welfare reform in the governor's office.

School officials said they "bent over backward to address the unreasonable demands of a fussy and difficult student."

Professors who taught Felkner say he misunderstood the core values of the curriculum, which the school said are drawn from the code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers.

Carolyn Polowy, a lawyer for the Washington, D.C.-based association, told the Providence Journal she can't comment on the details on the lawsuit, but did say "there is no specific political agenda" in the code of ethics.

Both the code and the college's curriculum stress the pursuit of "social justice" for the "vulnerable and oppressed" members of society. Felkner says that's code for big government programs something he opposes as a libertarian.

Officials for the School of Social Work said that relying on the standards in the study of social work "can no more be considered political indoctrination than can a medical school's adherence to the Hippocratic Oath" and that Felkner equates his right to free speech with "a claim to be able to create his own curriculum, something which is not constitutionally guaranteed."

Felkner's lawsuit isn't the first of its kind.

A Missouri State University social work student sued the school after she claimed she was retaliated against because she refused to support gay adoption as part of a class project. In 2006, the university said it reached an out-of-court settlement with the student, Emily Brooker.

Felkner describes himself as a "conservative libertarian" and says he is opposed to the expansion of government welfare programs. He says he believes "the market economy serves as the best aid to persons of every socioeconomic class, including the poor."

Officials from the social workers association say their code of ethics doesn't mandate expanded government programs.