Making themselves heard

April 15, 2007

While Colorado State University has stated a commitment to honoring students’ freedom of expression, Seth Anthony says that many have begun to feel like they are no longer given the same rights as other Americans.

“Many students think that it is illegal to protest on campus,” Anthony says.

Which is not the case.

Anthony, his Campus Libertarians and national watchdog organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education are calling for CSU to change several of its policies that deal with freedom of speech.

Seth Anthony of the Campus Libertarians says the university’s policies create a “chilling effect” around campus.

In a letter written to the university administration from FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris, the organization expresses its “grave concern regarding restrictive speech codes currently in place at Colorado State University” and accuses the administration of maintaining “unconstitutional restrictions on speech.”

While the university has yet to make any changes, administrators say they will begin to examine if its current policies do in fact need to be clarified or changed.

FIRE’s qualms surround three CSU policies: the “hate incidents policy,” which prohibits “expressions of hostility” in campus residence halls against a person because of race, color, ancestry, religion and sexual orientation.; the “peaceful assembly” policy, which prohibits protests from interfering with the functioning of campus, designates the Lory Student Center plaza as the primary public forum space and allows students to reserve a space in the plaza for assembly; and the “advertising policy,” which prohibits offensive language as well as references to drugs and alcohol on fliers posted in residence halls.

Overall, Anthony says these restrictions are placing unnecessary, unconstitutional restrictions on students. Case in point, he says: Last year, students attempted to post fliers advocating for the passage of Amendment 44, which legalized possession of less than one ounce of marijuana for those 21 and older. University officials told students that because the flier included a prominent image of a marijuana leaf it would have to be changed.

The university, FIRE says, cannot prohibit expression just because some people find it offensive.

Such restrictions on speech, Anthony suggests, cause a “chilling effect” on campus, discouraging students from protesting, speaking out or taking advantage of their First Amendment rights.

“Students still feel like there are parts of campus where they cannot speak freely,” he says.

Part of the misunderstanding could be because until recently the Lory Student Center Plaza was listed as CSU’s “public forum space” on the Web site, making many think that it was the only space where assembly was allowed.

In a letter from CSU’s General Counsel Loretta Martinez to FIRE, the university says the plaza is the primary spot for protests, but peaceful assembly is not restricted to that area. The plaza has been labeled correctly in student handbooks since the policy was changed in 2003, she says. Since receiving the letter from FIRE, the university has updated the Web site.

“Students can demonstrate all around campus,” Martinez said in an interview. “The only limitations are what are called time, place and manner restrictions. We can say to students, ‘you can’t block traffic’ or ‘don’t interfere with classes.’ You need to have it in a place that doesn’t impede the function of the university. We won’t allow a riot.”

Defending the university’s policies on hate incidents and advertising, Martinez says in the letter to FIRE that the regulations are “intended to protect and preserve the well-being and privacy that our students enjoy in their own residence.”

With that stated, Martinez says that the university will soon examine its policies along with the Associated Students of CSU.

“We want to make sure if it’s the policies themselves that are problems or how they are worded or being misunderstood,” she says. “And we will share our final products and our plans for education. It will be an open process. These sorts of things don’t happen automatically.”

Currently, ASCSU is debating a resolution that “urges the administration to review all university policies involving freedom of speech and expression” and calls for the university administration to change or remove restrictions that are in contrast with the its stated commitment to freedom of expression.

In its General Catalog, CSU recognizes its students’ First Amendment rights. But to Anthony and FIRE, that acknowledgement is not good enough. They want the university’s rules to be clarified and for any over-restrictive policies to be changed.

“The university says they have made a commitment to freedom of speech and I believe them,” Anthony says. “But we will continue to pressure the university until they clarify the policies and until they allow for all types of speech and protest that is protected under the First Amendment.”

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Schools: Colorado State University Cases: Colorado State University: Students Fight for Rights to Free Speech and Assembly