CFN Member at Colorado State Slams Speech Codes, Calls for Reform

November 18, 2009

Last month, Colorado State University graduate student and CFN member Seth Anthony published two excellent columns in The Rocky Mountain Collegian on the problematic policies in place at Colorado State University (CSU). All Torch readers should be sure to check them out.

In the first column, entitled “Free speech still at risk on campus,” Seth describes an incident from 2006, when CSU refused to allow him to post fliers in support of a state initiative to legalize possession of marijuana. With FIRE’s help, Seth was able to get the university to abandon some of its most egregious policies and the university’s speech code rating was changed from red to yellow on FIRE’s Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource.

After detailing some of the hard-fought reforms that have been implemented, Seth takes a look at some of the problematic policies that still remain on the books at CSU:

[W]hile the Residence Hall Handbook states that advertising in dorms “may not promote illegal behavior including the underage use of alcohol or illegal drug use,” The Source, a guide for student organizations published by Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement, states that “advertisements posted in Residence Halls may not include promotion of alcoholic beverages and/or drugs.”

While one prohibits promoting illegal activity only, SLiCE’s version is broader and could be easily be interpreted to restrict perfectly legal activity as well, such as an advertisement for CSU’s popular beer-brewing course or a student organization’s pub crawl.

FIRE sees such policy contradictions at many universities. As Seth notes, FIRE notified the university about the problematic policies a couple of years ago, but the university ignored FIRE’s advice in subsequent revisions. Looks like it’s time for another letter from FIRE.

Seth also examines how such speech codes hinder the true purpose of a university.

CSU’s General Catalog states that the university’s policy is to “encourage members of the University community to engage in discussion, to exchange ideas and opinions, and to speak, write and publish freely.”

In the search for knowledge, these freedoms are vital. But the fact that the university hasn’t bothered to make its policies on speech on campus consistent even with each other, let alone the First Amendment, doesn’t speak highly of its commitment to these ideals. What’s even more troubling about these contradictions is that they exist in precisely those policies that students pressed for changes inthe policies on advertising in the residence halls and on assembly on campus.

In a follow-up column published late last month, Seth notes additional policies identified by FIRE as problematic:

FIRE’s assessment of the university’s vague policies notes in particular the the Student Conduct Code, which bans behavior that “endangers the … psychological health” of individuals; the General Catalog, which prohibits “personal abuse;” and the Residence Hall Handbook, which bans “intimidation,” among other vaguely defined behaviors.

The lack of clear definitions in these policies means that university administrators could easily use these policies to crack down on clearly protected speech.

That’s exactly right, and Seth proceeds to supply hypothetical examples:

Did someone stand too close to you while making an emphatic point? Most people would consider that intimidating. Did your roommate offer a blunt assessment of your social standing? That definitely could have an impact on your psychological health. Has an ex maliciously shared information about you that you’d rather not have revealed? Such actions could be interpreted as abusive behavior.

These are unfortunate, yet everyday occurrences on a college campus. But they’re all constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment. However, if you take a strict reading of CSU’s policies, they’re also banned.

Seth quotes a common argument offered by university administrators in defense of their speech codes: that the codes will never be enforced unconstitutionally. “However,” he asks, “If that’s the case, why leave the vagueness in university policies?” It’s a great question, and one FIRE will be asking CSU soon.

Seth continues by pointing to FIRE cases at the University of New Hampshire, where student Tim Garneau was evicted from campus housing after posting a flier making fun of the “freshman 15” and encouraging students on the lower floors to take the stairs instead of the elevator; and at the University of Central Florida, where a student was charged with harassment for calling a student government candidate “a jerk and a fool” on Facebook. Seth also directs readers to FIRE’s case at San Francisco State University, where a federal judge struck down a “civility” policy not all that different from CSU’s.

The threats to free speech from such campus policies are realand as FIRE’s record attests, the courts, the public, and students are having none of it. Seth closes by writing:

Two years ago, CSU revised the worst of its policies restricting speech on campus. It’s time for our university to drop these vague policies as well, and for Colorado’s “Green University” to finally earn FIRE’s “green light.”

We couldn’t agree more.

FIRE has recently praised The College of William & Mary for abolishing and revising all unconstitutional speech codes and receiving a “green light” rating from FIRE. And just last month, the University of North Texas dramatically revised its free speech zone policy as well. Now is a great time for CSU to finish what it started and leave its unconstitutional policies behind, and we thank Seth Anthony for pointing the way once again.

Schools:  Colorado State University