It’s a difficult task encapsulating FIRE’s efforts in 2008 in a single sentence, much less a single word. After all, the breadth of FIRE’s victories on campus this year ranges from the exoneration of a student at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis who was the subject of a disgraceful investigation stemming from reading a book with the words "Ku Klux Klan" in the title to securing the rights of an instructor at Temple College in Texas to display a quote by Nietzsche on his office door. In between, FIRE clarified the right to political expression at the University of Oklahoma in the days leading up to the presidential election and instigated the dismantling of Valdosta State University’s unconstitutional "Free Expression Area."
But if there is a tie that binds some of FIRE’s more outrageous cases from 2008, it can be found in a single word: violence. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the shocking and tragic shooting deaths of thirty-two students and faculty members at Virginia Tech in April 2007 were still fresh in people’s minds when this past Valentine’s Day a gunman opened fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University, killing five students before killing himself. Understandbly, then, violence has been on the mind of college students and the administrators trying to protect them. Of course, real violence has no place in the academy and is dealt with accordingly by existing law. But then there is the more nebulous definition of "violence," which is used to squelch certain speech whose content has been deemed too charged for public consumption. In the name of protecting college communities from such "violence," 2008 saw the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois shamelessly exploited to suppress and punish protected speech. Colorado College was perhaps the worst offender.
The controversy at Colorado College started when undergraduate student Chris Robinson and another student created a parody of a flyer called "The Monthly Rag," which had been distributed pseudonymously by a group calling itself the "Feminist and Gender Studies Interns." "The Monthly Rag" featured a reference to "male castration," an announcement of an upcoming lecture on "feminist porn," and a primer on "packing" (i.e., pretending to have a phallus). In response, Robinson and the second student published their flyer, called "The Monthly Bag," under the pseudonym "The Coalition of Some Dudes."
As anyone can see from comparing the two flyers side by side, "The Monthly Bag" directly satirizes "The Monthly Rag," featuring, among other items, references to "tough guy wisdom," lessons on "chainsaw etiquette," and the shooting range of a sniper rifle. The publishers should have felt safe, knowing that satire is protected speech. (In Hustler Magazine, Inc., et al. v. Jerry Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), for example, the Supreme Court found that Hustler magazine’s satirical—and to some no doubt highly offensive—ad suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell had drunkenly lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse was protected by the First Amendment.)
Colorado College President Richard F. Celeste, unfortunately, did not see things that way. Shortly after "The Monthly Bag" was posted, Celeste sent a campus-wide e-mail denouncing the flyer, saying that itincluded "threatening and demeaning content, which is categorically unacceptable in this community… Vigorous debate is welcome. Anonymous acts meant to demean and intimidate others are not." When Robinson and the other student turned themselves in soon after—per the e-mail’s request—they were told that they had violated Colorado College’s values of respect and integrity, as defined by the school’s Student Code of Conduct, and that some in the community had interpreted their flyer as a threat against them.
Of course, Colorado College is a private institution, and thus not bound by the First Amendment. The school is free to institute such policies on student behavior, and students are free to attend or not attend the college in light of such requirements. But the college must live up to the promises it makes to its students, and the charges against Robinson are in stark contrast to the college’s statements in support of freedom of thought and expression:
On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful that it may not be expressed. Nothing in this Anti-Discrimination Policy should be construed to interfere with the academic freedom of all persons at the college to express and debate diverse ideas. Persons who object to the expression of certain ideas should generally counter with refutation, not demands for sanctions or disciplinary action against the person who has expressed the controversial ideas.
This statement is taken from Colorado College’s Diversity & Anti-Discrimination Policy, and seems designed precisely to protect students and faculty from the kind of ordeal that Robinson and the other student faced. But after a trial that to the detached observer appeared heavily tilted against the two students—Associate Dean of Students for Academic Support Ginger Morgan, for example, actively solicited students willing to testify against the two defendants—Robinson and the second student were found guilty of violating the code of conduct policy on "violence" in a decision handed down by Vice President for Student Life/Dean of Students Mike Edmonds.
Edmonds claimed to understand the flyer’s satirical intentions, and commended the two students for immediately coming forward when asked by Celeste—clearly understanding that the "Dudes" never at any time posed a threat to any member of the community. All of this made his rationale for the decision the more alarming. Said Edmonds:
[I]n the climate in which we find ourselves today, violence—or implied violence—of any kind cannot be tolerated on a college campus. I believe the issue here is not whether you intended to threaten anyone. The fact is that your publication was received as a threat by members of the Colorado College community.
Edmonds went on to cite "the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality, combined with the fact that it was distributed anonymously," as the source of the so-called threat felt by students.
Any impartial reader of the decision immediately sees the gaps in Edmonds’ logic. First, it’s absurd to think that any reasonable individual would feel threatened by a "juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality" that amounts to a fact about a sniper rifle placed atop a description of a sexual position taken from Men’s Health. Second, the charge of anonymity reflected a blatant double standard: Does anyone really believe that if a male student who read "The Monthly Rag"—also published under a pseudonym—complained of feeling threatened by the looming risk of castration, the college would have taken up his case? Finally, though Colorado College is a private campus, the perception of a threat as justification for investigation and punishment of speech on public campuses has been discredited by the courts time and time again for the simple reason that it puts campus discourse at the mercy of the most sensitive members of the campus community—or those who are simply willing to complain the most.
Edmonds directed the students to hold a forum "to address the issues in an open and respectful way among all affected constituencies," and decreed that the "violence" charge would be permanently placed in each of their student files. Naturally, Robinson appealed the decision, which allowed his case to be reviewed by a separate appeals committee. Unfortunately for Robinson, the final judge of his appeal of Edmonds’ decision was (here’s a representative artifact of college "justice" systems) Mike Edmonds himself, who—unsurprisingly—rejected Robinson’s appeal. Shortly following the denial of Robinson’s appeal, Colorado College was added to FIRE’s Red Alert list, ranking it among the worst of the worst for protecting campus speech.
In a pair of brazenly disingenuous blog entries, President Celeste has upheld the rationale for the students’ punishment, maintained that the students were given a fair hearing, and denied that the sanctions against them constitute punishment, a statement which flatly contradicts the definition found in Pathfinder, Colorado College’s student handbook. And inexcusably, he co-opted the raw emotions left over from the shootings at Northern Illinois to justify Colorado College’s suppression of "The Monthly Bag":
And this happened within days of the horrific Valentine’s Day killings at Northern Illinois University, where five students died and 18 were injured when a former student with a shotgun and two handguns fired into a lecture hall.
That Celeste, the former governor of Ohio and a Rhodes Scholar to boot, would resort to such demagoguery to justify violating his college’s own commitments to free expression is a disgrace. Unfortunately, as later cases this year at Tarrant County College and Lone Star College would show, it was far from the last time such manipulative tactics would be employed to squelch constitutionally protected expression.
Hopefully in 2009 Colorado College will reverse the findings against the two students, remove the disciplinary letters from their files, and allow FIRE to remove it from our Red Alert list. Regardless, the contempt and condescension displayed by the administration towards its students makes this case one of the sorriest stories of 2008.