As explained in today’s press release, Colorado College found two students guilty this month of violating the school’s policy against “violence” by publishing an anonymous parody of a publication of the Feminist and Gender Studies program. As Adam explains this morning, by punishing the students, Colorado College violates not only its own promises of freedom of expression, but also fundamental notions of fairness and common sense. Needless to say, as far as censorship on campus is concerned, this case is an instant classic.
Luckily for his fellow students at Colorado College and all those who value free expression, Chris Robinson, one-half of the “Coalition of Some Dudes” responsible for the parody’s publication, has decided to fight back. In a powerful op-ed published on Friday by Colorado College’s student newspaper and reprinted in full here at FIRE’s website, Robinson details his shock at the official reaction to his unmistakable satire:
The college opens for business at 8 am. By 8:30 am on the day of publication, I observed security forces tearing down our satire. Wow. Who would have the power and zeal to initiate such a crackdown? I’m not sure, but all I can say is the Chinese Communist Party would be proud.
Having offered myself up to “the authorities” immediately after receipt of a mass email of denunciation by the President of our College, I was then informed that we would face charges in the Student Conduct Committee. I’d love to tell you more about that proceeding, but I’m not at liberty to do so. I will tell you this, though: it was deadly serious. It was an open-ended procedure which could have led to any punishment up to expulsion. It was a corrupt and biased proceeding which inspired in me a terror I’ve not felt for many years, and constituted a cruel and unusual punishment in and of itself, which I suspect was its intent.
Robinson continues his editorial tour de force by locating his parody in the larger American tradition of anonymous satire as a constitutionally protected (and indeed, cherished) means to voice unpopular opinion before denouncing Colorado College’s speech code—which, as he points out, includes provisions that are “carefully crafted to be so vague that they will permit the college to punish anything it feels like punishing.” Finally, Robinson concludes by challenging his fellow students to realize just how high the stakes are when it comes to punishing the expression of minority viewpoints on campus:
The simple fact that we were brought before a Soviet-style show trial has already sent a message to campus, and it is a clear one, namely that every other potential bearer of heterodox views should think long and hard about expressing them for fear of ending up in the same situation as us. In order to avoid even the possibility of offending one group or another, nobody outside the “approved” ideological categories will say anything.
This is precisely the chilling effect that the First Amendment is specifically designed to guard against, and to sanction it is a fundamental violation of the mission of this college. Transparently selective enforcement against ideologically disallowed speech is categorically the same as those abhorrent thought-control missions carried out by the Saudi Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a perfect example of what John Adams called “the most mischievous of all doctrines, that of passive obedience and non-resistance.” It’s Orwell and Kafka, together at last.
Here’s the catch. Colorado College is a private institution, which means that from a legal standpoint it can do whatever it wants regarding speech. It can enforce political positions it regards as sacrosanct with legal impunity. But should it? Do you as a student think CC should be a campus with less protection for free speech than Pikes Peak Community College? Do you think that CC should arrogate to itself the right to create a standard for speech independent of and lower than that affirmed by the highest court of the land? Should we revoke the very principles that allowed a thing like The Monthly Rag to be printed in the first place, forging instead ideological weapons of oppression aimed at a satire of it?
If you can’t answer those questions in the negative, I can only ask you to consider the words of Benjamin Franklin. “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
I strongly recommend taking the time to read the piece in full. Robinson’s eloquent defense of free expression deserves your attention.