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Colorado College Remains in the ‘Red’

Colorado College (CC) has long been associated with one color here at FIRE: red, as in our Red Alert list, on which CC remains for violating the free speech rights of two students back in 2008. But recent actions have demonstrated that this association is warranted for another reason: CC's continued maintenance of "red light" speech codes restricting all kinds of student expression. Despite FIRE's efforts, CC has not seen fit to improve its red light status, meaning that campus expression is constantly in danger of being censored and punished—just as was the case in 2008.

Longtime Torch readers will remember that back in '08, CC investigated and ultimately punished two male students for distributing a campus flyer called "The Monthly Bag" under the pseudonym "The Coalition of Some Dudes," parodying a flyer called "The Monthly Rag" distributed on campus by the "Feminist and Gender Studies Interns." Just as the latter covered topics like male castration, "feminist porn," and the practice of "packing" (pretending to have a phallus), The Monthly Bag satirically referenced, among other things, "tough guy wisdom," "chainsaw etiquette," the shooting range of a sniper rifle, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse [of men]" from the website The college inexplicably chose to investigate The Coalition of Some Dudes and found them guilty of "violating the student code of conduct policy on violence" for their "juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality." As a result, the students had the "violence" finding placed in their files and were required to hold a forum to "discuss issues and questions raised" by their parody. 

For this outrageous violation of the school's own stated commitment to free speech, CC has languished for years on our Red Alert list, reserved for the worst of the worst when it comes to campus liberty. Despite multiple letters from FIRE—not to mention a full-page advertisement in U.S. News and World Report's "America's Best Colleges" issue, exposing and shaming the members of our Red Alert list—CC has steadfastly refused to reverse its findings against the students. The Red Alert designation has remained as a permanent stain on CC's free speech record; as with all of the Red Alert schools, we warn prospective students and faculty to think twice before choosing to enroll or teach at CC. We also named CC on our list of the worst colleges for free speech in features for The Huffington Post each of the last two years.

Then, in November 2011, CC's policy on "Respect" (.PDF) received the dishonor of being named FIRE's Speech Code of the Month. The policy, which earns a red light for clearly and substantially restricting free speech, prohibits, in pertinent part: 

... any act which endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or group, or which destroys or removes public or private property, or which produces ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other such result. (Emphasis added.) 

As Sam wrote in explaining why we highlighted this policy as our Speech Code of the Month:

Got that? Embarrassing or ridiculing a fellow student is prohibited at Colorado College. This bans a wide range of speech, including the kind of harsh satire and parody that is often a powerfully effective form of social commentary. Would anyone watch The Daily Show, for example, if Jon Stewart were not allowed to lampoon the objects of his criticism?


And yet the "Respect" policy does just that, banning any message that produces ridicule or embarrassment (or any "other such result," a terribly vague proscription that leaves students in the position of having to guess at what is prohibited) in another student. Making matters worse, the policy conditions the permissibility of speech entirely on the reaction of the listener (any act "which produces" ridicule or embarrassment is prohibited, regardless of whether such a reaction is reasonable), leaving students' free speech rights at the mercy of the most sensitive members of the community.

As with all of our Speech Codes of the Month, we wrote a letter to CC detailing the problems with the policy and urging the college to reform it before further free speech violations took place on campus. Our letter, sent to CC President Jill Tiefenthaler on December 30, 2011, presented the college with an opportunity to remove a red light policy from the books and remove itself from the Red Alert list in one fell swoop. This was a real opportunity not only to put CC's poor record on campus speech behind it, but to move into a new era of respecting student expression. Unfortunately, our letter has gone unanswered even now, nearly six months later. We have not even received a response of "we stand by our policy."

CC's silence on this matter is lamentable, for as long as the findings against the two students in 2008 go unreversed, and as long as the college remains a red light school, free expression is under threat at CC. If I were a prospective student or faculty member, I would think twice before choosing to enroll or teach at CC. That's because the college has shown that when it comes to free speech, it remains deeply in the red. 

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