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This Is What the Chilling Effect Looks Like: Acclaimed Classroom Skit at U. of Colorado Canceled

By April 9, 2014

Back in January, FIRE shared the good news that the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) would allow Professor Patti Adler to continue teaching her long-running and popular “Deviance in U.S. Society” class after initially claiming that a lecture on prostitution could be seen as “harassing.” During that lecture, teaching assistants volunteered to play the part of prostitutes and other characters, answering questions and speaking about their lives.

Unfortunately, Adler says that since the controversy, teaching assistants have been reluctant to participate, forcing her to cancel the presentation that she had been teaching without problems for years. With Adler’s plans to retire after teaching “Deviance” as a one-month intensive course in May, CU administrators’ dubious claims that the skit might constitute sexual harassment likely spelled the end of the course as the CU community knew it.

This outcome demonstrates why it is not sufficient that some cases involving protected speech eventually end without official sanction or punishment of the speaker. Colleges and universities must make every effort not to chill speech through burdensome and stigmatizing investigations of clearly protected expression.

Particularly in light of the CU community’s recent consideration of whether the university should take action against Professor Steven Hayward for opinions he shared on a non-university blog, it is essential that CU administrators strongly and publicly reaffirm the First Amendment rights of faculty and students on all parts of the political and ideological spectrum. Otherwise, professors like Adler and Hayward and students who would otherwise be active participants in discussions both inside and outside of the classroom will likely opt for the safer choice of not contributing to the “marketplace of ideas” that should prosper on a public university campus.

According to the Daily Camera, “[a] committee within the Boulder Faculty Assembly has been looking into what happened to Adler, and is expected to issue a report on the situation on May 1.” FIRE will keep an eye out for updates.

Schools: University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Professor Threatened with Harassment Investigation, Forced Retirement Over Classroom Presentation