COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., December 7, 2015—Colorado College has suspended and banned a student from campus for nearly two years in response to a comment intended as a joke on the anonymous social media application Yik Yak.
In November 2015, Thaddeus Pryor sent an anonymous reply to the comment “#blackwomenmatter” on Yik Yak. Pryor’s response read, “They matter, they’re just not hot.” On November 20, Colorado College found that Pryor’s post violated its “Abusive Behavior” and “Disruption of College Activities” policies and suspended him from the college until August 28, 2017. In the meantime, the college has banned Pryor from setting foot on campus and has forbidden him from taking classes at other institutions for academic credit. Pryor has appealed his suspension.
In a letter sent on November 25, 2015, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) urged Colorado College, a private institution, to honor its moral and contractual obligation to keep the promises of freedom of expression that it makes to students. Colorado College’s Student Guide, The Pathfinder, provides that “all members of the college community have such basic rights as freedom of speech….”
“Colorado College’s disciplinary action toward Pryor—a 21 month suspension—for posting what was intended to be a joke on social media completely contradicts the school’s promises of freedom of speech,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Ari Cohn. “The college’s punitive and heavy-handed overreaction to Pryor’s social media post will have a chilling effect on campus discourse.”
Colorado College first contacted Pryor about the post on November 19, 2015, and summoned him to Senior Associate Dean of Students Rochelle T. Mason’s office. In his meeting with Mason, Pryor admitted to authoring the reply and explained that it was meant to be a joke. That evening, Pryor received an email from Mason requesting that they meet again to discuss Colorado College’s response to the post. The next day, Pryor met with Mason and was informed in a letter of his suspension.
Although Colorado College is private, and not legally bound by the First Amendment, it has repeatedly stated its commitment to freedom of expression. Yet Colorado College receives FIRE’s poorest, “red light” rating for its speech codes. In fact, Colorado College’s Abusive Behavior policy—one of the policies Pryor was found guilty of violating—was named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month in November 2011 for banning any act “which produces ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other such result.”
“In an academic climate that has become increasingly censored, the expression of a preference, in my case even a joking preference, is being squashed with impunity,” said Pryor. “A two year suspension during which I am prohibited from studying elsewhere is unwarranted and unreasonable. I made a six word comment that I freely admitted to authoring, thinking honesty was the first step to helping the community get past the incident. I support constructive discipline, but I believe the school’s reaction neither educates me on my act of insensitivity, nor benefits the community, nor consoles offended students, to whom I am extremely sorry.”
Just last month, Colorado College wrote a letter to the campus community proclaiming that its commitment to diversity is intertwined with its commitment to dialogue. FIRE again urges Colorado College to uphold its promises of freedom of speech on campus.
“Colorado College may not claim to respect freedom of expression while throwing a student out for two years for making a six-word joke,” said Cohn.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org