The University of Colorado (CU) recently approved a new “Campus Violence Policy” that states that if CU students or employees make violent threats, they may be required to go through a mental health screening.
The policy, in relevant part, states, “UCB may refer individuals accused of making threats of violence for an assessment of the likelihood that they will act on a threat of violence.” (Emphasis added.)
In an article in The Daily Camera in Boulder, CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard noted that the university administration felt there had been enough incidents of violence on campus to “really get ahead of this” and enact the new policy.
CU’s attempts to create a safer campus environment are laudable, but the way to ensure safety is not by allowing mental health screenings every time someone interprets (or misinterprets) an individual’s remarks and merely accuses someone else of threatening them. While CU has a legitimate interest in protecting the campus community, an unclear policy requiring mental health evaluations any time someone alleges another person threatened him is unacceptable, as the language of the policy requires nothing more than a claim that an individual issued a threat, with no mention of whether the accusation or the perceived threat needs any substantiation in reality.
Perhaps more disturbing is Hilliard’s response to thoughts from FIRE’s own Samantha Harris, who points out a possible problem with the new policy. Samantha said:
It very well may be intended to protect the First Amendment. But some of the language is broad, and that might hold people back from engaging in constitutionally protected speech.
Samantha is referring to, of course, the “chilling effect” that is placed on speech when a school’s policies are so vague or overbroad that they leave students guessing as to what is or is not allowed on campus. The idea is that without knowing exactly what types of expression are prohibited by this policy, students may be reluctant to engage in free and open expression for fear of disciplinary repercussions—especially if, like at CU, they could be forced to undergo mental health assessments if they are accused of making threats.
Hilliard’s response? According to The Daily Camera article, he said of the policy, “It really addresses conduct more than speech.”
Sadly, Hilliard overlooks that in discussing the protections of the First Amendment, “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” are often used synonymously. Often a person’s actions or conduct cannot be divorced from his message. When someone steps on or burns a flag in protest, his thoughts are being expressed through his conduct. Unfortunately, Hilliard and the University of Colorado fail to comprehend that the First Amendment protects not only verbal and written communication, but also symbolic speech of this nature.