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Denver Law swears it didn’t stifle student speech. Its own statements suggest otherwise.

Ilya Shapiro speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Gage Skidmore /

Administrators at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law unfairly questioned members of the Federalist Society who hosted a speaking event featuring Ilya Shapiro.

On March 7, the Federalist Society at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hosted a controversial speaking event featuring Ilya Shapiro. Although the event proceeded without disruption, DU’s administration appears to have violated the rights of both FedSoc and event protesters in the process — earning the university two letters from FIRE.

FIRE first wrote Denver Law the day of the event after a troubling statement that the university had “designated two [campus] areas for peaceful protest” of the FedSoc event. While a “free speech zone” might sound free speech-friendly, it’s anything but. We asked DU to ensure students could exercise their right to peacefully protest in any of the campus open, outdoor areas.

We reminded Denver Law:

Given that DU “recognizes the right to freedom of expression and the free interchange of ideas, including the right to peaceful and orderly protests and demonstrations,” the university is obligated to protect the speaker’s expression, allow counter-speech like peaceful protests, and also ensure the safety of those on campus.

Denver Law responded to FIRE the next day, arguing it had supported counter-protesting in three venues “with no protesters ‘corralled’ or ‘forced’ anywhere or at any time.” Alas, Denver Law’s response did not alleviate FIRE’s concerns, which were heightened by  a statement from Shapiro post-event that suggested its organizers had been targeted for their views.

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Shapiro reported that administrators had called the FedSoc student hosts into numerous meetings, including a weekend meeting before the event with the university’s vice chancellor. So, we wrote to Denver Law again last week to express continued concern about its unwillingness to acknowledge the improper limits on event protesters’ rights and about the chilling effect the repeated meetings had on the event organizers.

Regarding Denver Law’s defense of its limits on protest, we responded to the university, “Whatever word one chooses to describe it— ‘corralling,’ ‘forcing,’ or ‘designating’—DU cannot further limit protest or prevent students from expressing themselves in open, outdoor areas of campus.”

We also detailed our concern about the chilling effect imposed by burdening event hosts with excessive meetings:

Given the intense criticism from students who objected to Shapiro’s speaking invitation, we are concerned that DU unduly chilled the event organizers’ speech by repeatedly requiring them to meet with administrators. While DU may ask students to meet to plan security measures for an event, repeatedly burdening students with meetings simply because their invited speaker holds controversial views will discourage them from inviting speakers of their choosing in the future. Creating additional hurdles for speech it disfavors is not acceptable at an institution that purports to protect students’ expressive rights.

Although we appreciate Denver Law’s stated commitment to free expression and that the event proceeded as scheduled, the university has more to learn about its free speech obligations. As always, FIRE is happy to help institutions better understand what it means to support students in exercising their expressive rights. Step one is for them to not get in the way.

We urge Denver Law to commit to allowing unfettered debate on campus in the future — on all sides of the conversation.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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