Columbia College Can’t Cope with Criticism

By January 31, 2006

While school administrators often embrace freedom of speech in their catalogs and manuals, these same administrators tend to quickly forget this freedom when criticized by members of their institution’s community.

Consider Columbia College Chicago, the nation’s largest arts and communications college. In April of 2005, Secret Service agents attended the opening of a museum exhibit at the school. The agents had received reports of artwork critical of President Bush. In response to questioning by the agents, the school defended the artwork and the artist. A Columbia College spokeswoman reportedly said, “We support freedom of speech and we stand for academic freedom.”

However, last month Columbia College fired a staff member, Mark Phillips, for helping create a website called Wacky Warrick. The site pokes fun at Columbia President Warrick L. Carter. Inside Higher Ed reports that though the creators produced the site anonymously, college officials conducted a midnight raid on the laboratory where Phillips works and discovered he was one of the creators. While administrators claim that Phillips inappropriately used the school’s computer to create the website, Phillips and the other creators say they did all the work on the website on their own computers and during their own time.

Mark Lloyd, spokesman for Columbia, said:

Generally speaking, it’s our position that this is not an issue of free speech, but really a personnel issue… [Columbia College] has an obligation to act when there is an abuse of the college’s resources that may involve harassment or the demeaning of individuals.

The administrators at Columbia should begin by reading Samantha’s January 25 blog post on the definition of harassment. Then, they should carefully consider the meaning of their commitment to freedom of speech. This commitment means protecting even those people who criticize their administration.