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William Felkner v. John Nazarian, et al.

Invoking the contentious “qualified immunity” doctrine, state courts in Rhode Island prevented Rhode Island College (RIC) officials from facing civil liability for violating a student’s First Amendment rights to free speech and expression. The officials had expelled NCLA’s client, William Felkner, for refusing to parrot the school’s progressive ideological perspective on social work. NCLA asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reexamine the doctrine and abolish the ahistorical standard for “qualified immunity” that requires violations of the law to be “clearly established” via prior court precedents before officials can be held to account. In particular, Felkner’s petition asked the Justices to decide whether deskbound officials, who have time to consider the law and to consult legal counsel, deserve qualified immunity for violating people’s rights. Unlike officers in the field, school officials do not have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions with limited information.

The faculty of the public RIC’s Master of Social Work program were hostile to then-student William Felkner’s conservative/libertarian views, repeatedly hindering, for ideological reasons, his progression through the program until the interim dean dismissed him from the program entirely in 2008. In 2019, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island decided that Mr. Felkner presented sufficient evidence to establish that university officials in fact had violated his rights to free speech and expression.

On remand, the Rhode Island Superior Court granted the RIC officials “qualified immunity” because it was not “clearly established” ahead of time that their conduct would violate Mr. Felkner’s free speech rights. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island upheld that ruling on a second appeal to that court, relying on the “clearly established law” standard to question whether a “reasonable educator would have understood what they were doing violated a student’s constitutional rights.”

In February 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court denied NCLA’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Mr. Felkner’s case.

Mark Chenoweth
President and Chief Legal Officer
Margaret A. Little
Senior Litigation Counsel
Greg Dolin
Senior Litigation Counsel
Margot Cleveland
Of Counsel

Reply Brief for Petitioner

January 26, 2024 | Read More

Petition for Writ of Certiorari

September 18, 2023 | Read More


NCLA Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Rein in Qualified Immunity for Officials Who Violate Speech Rights

September 18, 2023 | Read More



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