The intimidating atmosphere for free speech on campus

February 19, 2004

The University of Colorado at Boulder decided to teach us all a lesson about free speech last week, but it may not be the lesson it intended.

Administrators there had originally told the College Republicans and the Equal Opportunity Alliance that they could not hold an “affirmative action bake sale” on campus. In case you don’t know, these “bake sales” are protests that have been held across the country which satirize affirmative action by charging Hispanic and black students less for baked goods than white and Asian students.

While you may not like this particular form of “guerilla theater,” this is clearly protected speech and it is a shame that it took the threat of a lawsuit to convince CU to allow the protest.

However, what actually happened on Feb. 11, the day of the protest, shows that students and administrators need to get a handle on how the First Amendment works. Officials have both an obligation not to censor and to prevent angry mobs from intimidating students who are engaging in protected protest.

What do I mean when I say “intimidating?” To fully explain, it is important to illustrate how the term is so often abused on college campuses.

For example, Ursula Monaco -a 55-year-old with eleven grandchildren – is a student at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island. She has been a ferocious critic of the administration for years.

Last May, she accidentally replied to an e-mail from a professor instead of forwarding it to one of her friends. In the e-mail she used a single profanity to describe the professor. She was quickly brought up on charges of “intimidation” and “harassment,” found guilty, placed on probation and banned from “any contact with the student newspaper” in addition to a litany of other restrictions.

In other words, the college used Monaco’s breach of Victorian decorum as an opportunity to silence a long-time critic.

A few months earlier, University of Alaska at Fairbanks professor Sandra Bond – who is in her mid-forties and sometimes needs a cane to walk due to multiple sclerosis – posted two signs on her office door. One said, “The End is Near;” the other was a K-Mart ad for guns and ammunition. The first sign expressed that her contract was ending and she was leaving UAF. She posted the ad because K-Mart’s slogan “The Stuff of Life” seemed ironic to Bond considering the products.

These signs were considered so threatening and intimidating that they justified placing her on “administrative leave … effective immediately” and forbidding her from entering her office building without official permission.

The Supreme Court has made it clear that the kind of “intimidation” that states may lawfully forbid is “a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”

Trying to convince a judge that Ursula Monaco and Sandra Bond (the taller of the two is 5 feet 4 inches) placed other adults in mortal fear by swearing or putting up an ironic sign would be an exercise in absurdity.

Merely making someone feel “intimidated” is not a crime; indeed, almost all of our country’s most contentious political issues leave some feeling subjectively intimidated. Thankfully, this does not mean discussing those issues can be banned.

Sadly, while universities seem willing to abuse “intimidation” to punish individuals they dislike, they are unwilling to apply the principle when it is warranted – which brings us back to CU.

Even though the bake sale protest was allowed to go on, a local newspaper reported that pro-affirmative action students formed a “mob,” surrounded the bake sale, tore down signs and shoved protestors. These activities could be rightfully stopped as unlawful intimidation.

While I am not advocating that pro-affirmative action students be punished for this incident, it is telling that universities seem so willing to use “intimidation” so lightly in some cases and then refuse to do anything in others.

CU should ask itself: Would it have allowed a “Free Tibet” event to have its signs torn down, its booth surrounded and its organizers shoved around?

While confusion abounds on some legal concepts, the problem on America’s campuses runs much deeper than a misunderstanding of legal language. Many American colleges and universities need a remedial course in the meaning of freedom.

Schools: University of Alaska Fairbanks University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Suppression of Affirmative Action Bake Sale Suffolk County Community College: Abuse of Harassment and Intimidation Charges to Silence Student Journalist