CSU and free speech

April 15, 2007

Staff Editorial, Rocky Mountain News

College and university administrators dread the bad publicity they get when students who have been offended by someone’s opinions or speech express their displeasure with protests. So they go to great lengths to adopt policies that will reduce the likelihood of offense, and never mind if a few constitutional rights are trampled in the process.

And what do they get for this well-intentioned devotion to sweetness and light? Bad publicity.

The latest institution to learn this lesson is Colorado State University in Fort Collins, which on Wednesday afternoon hosted a free-speech rally to celebrate the end of an inadvertently restrictive policy limiting rallies and protests to a single “Public Forum” space on campus, the Lory Student Center Plaza. The policy also required any group planning to practice free speech in the designated space to give 14 days’ advance notice and limit the exercise of their First Amendment rights to at most three days per year.

Students from the group Concerned Libertarians contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (thefire.org), which has dealt with similar situations on a number of campuses. On March 12 FIRE wrote a letter to CSU President Larry Penley outlining why the policy was inconsistent with the First Amendment, and on March 28, the university’s general counsel responded with a clarification. She said Lory plaza was the primary public forum but that there were many sites on campus where protests and demonstrations were permitted. Student groups had been told, but the student center Web site didn’t reflect that fact.

Glad to have that cleared up.

However, Wednesday’s rally also protested other CSU policies that raise constitutional questions. Residence hall policies include a ban on “expressions of hostility against a person or property because of a person’s race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, ability, age, gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”

But not all “expressions of hostility” are illegal. As a FIRE representative pointed out, taking the guidelines literally, “the university could punish a student . . . for harshly criticizing the Catholic Church for preventing the ordination of women (an expression of hostility because of religion).” Only if the speech legally qualifies as harassment can it be addressed by university policy.

Residence hall policies are required to be “sensitive to social concerns such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and not use offensive language or illustrations.” Yes, but enforcement must be handled carefully. As FIRE said in its letter to Penley, “Any policy that gives the university unfettered discretion to determine what speech is and is not permissible is dangerously arbitrary and overbroad.” We agree.

Schools: Colorado State University Cases: Colorado State University: Students Fight for Rights to Free Speech and Assembly