Two More ‘Bias Incident’ Reports at the Claremont Colleges

By on December 3, 2008

The Claremont Consortium is at it again. FIRE has received word of two more "bias related incident" e-mails from Claremont administrators.

You may remember that Claremont has a protocol of notifying all students at all five Claremont colleges when such incidents occur. Previous Consortium-wide e-mails followed minor incidents such as the writing of "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" on a whiteboard and the "white party" debacle, where party advertisements posted around the Scripps College campus were deemed offensive by Scripps College Dean of Students Debra Wood. She believed that the flyers were racist and sexist. The incident earned Wood a nomination for "Idiot of the Year" from The Washington Post‘s "Offbeat" column.

This latest incident came about because of an advertisement for a "Wild Wild West" party with a picture of Jesus holding a beer and a cigarette, with the caption, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the West and have come to party."

Guy Gerbick, Interim Vice President and Dean of Students at Harvey Mudd College, sent out an e-mail on November 23 to all students in the five Claremont colleges about this "bias related incident." I have quoted most of Gerbick’s e-mail below, along with my comments.

By the second paragraph of the e-mail (the first was just a description of the poster), Gerbick demonstrates the incredible lack of seriousness demonstrated by the bias-reporting system:

The use of a demeaning depiction of a religious symbol to promote a party is clearly offensive to many people. HMC is a community that value (sic) everyone. This is not okay on a campus that strives to inculcate real respect for people with differing backgrounds, opinions, and values. We can do better than that.

The assumption here is that if anyone at Harvey Mudd is offended, for any reason, it is incumbent upon the administration to take action, presumably because a community cannot survive if the authorities don’t take action every time somebody is offended. If Guy Gerbick really believes this, you have to wonder what country he lives in, because it doesn’t appear to be the United States.

Since there has been much discussion lately about what constitutes a bias related incident, let’s use this example so that everyone understands.

This should be interesting.

This student reported that he was offended-as a Catholic-to the dean on his campus about a flyer posted by our students on his campus (or maybe he saw one on Platt when he came to Jay’s Place).

The bias related incident protocol (http://www.hmc.edu/about/administrativeoffices/dos1/studenthandbook1/policies1/communications.html) states:

"Bias related incidents are expressions of hostility against another person (or group) because of that person’s (or group’s) race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of those characteristics. As used in this Protocol, the term ‘bias related incident’ is limited to conduct that violates one or more of The Claremont Colleges’ disciplinary codes and which is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or by analogous provisions of state law."

The student complained that the flyer was offensive to him because of his religion. That satisfies the first part of the definition. Does it violate an HMC disciplinary code? Let’s check the Discriminatory Harassment Policy (http://www.hmc.edu/about/administrativeoffices/dos1/studenthandbook1/policies1/discriminatoryharassment.html):

"B. Discriminatory Harassment is defined as behavior that creates an offensive, demeaning, intimidating, or hostile environment. Discriminatory harassment must meet the following criteria:

* The conduct is related to race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation or any other classification or characteristic protected by law

* The conduct is unwanted or unwelcome

* The conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with or otherwise unreasonably adversely affecting an individual’s employment, educational opportunity, work performance, or organizational participation."

This incident certainly meets the first two criteria. Does it meet the third? That is very difficult to judge. Given the subjective nature of determining whether someone has been reasonably or unreasonably affected by something, we have generally defaulted to the complainant’s definition of the situation. This student, by bringing the matter forward, has seemingly deemed the depiction unreasonable.

Gerbick has just admitted that there are no objective criteria for evaluating bias incident reports. That they default "to the complainant’s definition of the situation" means that the campus is purposely being held hostage to the most sensitive and easily-offended members of the campus community.

If there’s a doubt about whether a picture can be discriminatory, the policy further clarifies: "Examples of discriminatory harassment may include:… 3. Visual conduct: demeaning depictions (pictures, objects, posters, video, audio, or broadcast material) in a public place."

This definition of harassment could include anything, from presidential campaign ads to political cartoons. It is so broad that, as written, there is no way the policy could realistically be enforced in any place other than a relatively small totalitarian state.

Now, HMC has a separate poster policy that says (in short) that if you find something on a flyer offensive, you pull one down and contact the person who made the poster to complain (http://www.hmc.edu/about/administrativeoffices/dos1/studenthandbook1/policies1/publicity.html). However, our posting policy seems to be incompatible with our discriminatory harassment policy. This is an area that we need to reconcile.

I hope this long explanation clarifies how the deans of students of the Claremont Colleges make decisions about handling bias related incidents.

It explains a lot, actually. It explains why FIRE intervened with a letter over the "white party" incident to warn the Colleges that they could not take action against the students responsible for the flyers and still claim to uphold freedom of expression. FIRE also cautioned that such administrative responses to "bias related incidents" have a chilling effect on speech.

What’s funny about this incident is that David, the Catholic student who complained, apparently wasn’t out to get the administration to censor the flyer. According to The Claremont Conservative, where David blogs, he just wanted to flush out the administration’s methods of handling such issues. His co-blogger Charles Johnson writes,

[I]n the process of reporting a bias-related incident, David seems more in the process of following an intellectual curiosity than a full fledged belief that Christianity is under attack on our campuses. By contacting the Dean of Harvey Mudd and CMC, David did us all a favor by exposing the standards by which the five colleges determine whether or not they are offended.

To be sure, David wasn’t happy about the flyer, as he makes clear in his own post. But he’s not about jumping on the Claremont censor bandwagon. Charles and David are willing to give Gerbick more credit than I am. Gerbick may not have used the same strong wording that Wood did in the "white party" incident above, but he is still using Harvey Mudd’s illiberal policies to demonstrate to students that speech permissible under the First Amendment (which, as a college in California, Harvey Mudd is legally bound to uphold) is prohibited. Gerbick even counts such speech as discriminatory harassment when one individual subjectively feels offended!

Of course, this also illustrates the blindingly obvious point that these policies can easily be taken advantage of by anyone claiming, rightly or wrongly, to be offended. If a group of, say, five students made it their business to complain about everything on campus that could possibly offend them, they could completely paralyze the college administration under these absurd rules. It’s kind of surprising that this hasn’t already happened as a method of proving to everyone the ridiculousness of these policies.

Back to Gerbick’s e-mail:

I also hope that you don’t lose sight of the feeling of hurt that these types of incidents cause. We can often get tangled in discussions of rights and forget about the people who are truly hurt by the insensitivity of others.

Yeah, those silly "discussions of rights" are a real distraction from the real issue: hurt feelings. Gerbick has adopted an insultingly paternalistic manner to talk about the adults attending HMC. There’s apparently good reason that HMC is the only college in the Claremont Consortium ranked as a red-light school in FIRE’s Spotlight database of speech codes.

Let’s remember that these "bias-related incident" e-mails have been sent from other colleges in the Claremont Consortium as well. Just last week, Johnson reported on The Claremont Conservative that yet another bias-related e-mail from Claremont McKenna College Associate Dean of Students Jennifer Jimenez Maraña was sent out last week regarding "anti-Christian slurs along with a sexually explicit drawing" on a student’s door. The e-mail goes on to say, "CMC values and respects the dignity of each person and acts of bias will not be tolerated."

Such statements of intolerance from a college administrator will likely chill students’ speech; does Jennifer Jimenez Maraña mean that disciplinary sanctions are coming? Legally, CMC must tolerate such "acts of bias" and may not punish students for their protected speech, so what does she mean by saying that such speech "will not be tolerated"?

FIRE’s letter to the Claremont Consortium pointed out that administrators’ e-mails following bias-related incidents "show a concerted effort on the part of Claremont College administrators to pressure students to censor their expression." If the Claremont colleges want to continue to be "a safe space that encourages and welcomes speaking out," as Pomona College President David Oxtoby has claimed, then these e-mails need to stop. The remedy for offensive speech, as Charles says, is more speech. Now where have we heard that before?

Schools: Claremont University Consortium Scripps College Harvey Mudd College Claremont McKenna College