The Student Life (TSL), a student newspaper at Pomona College in California, ran an article on Friday about Pomona’s policy on "bias-related incidents" and about FIRE’s yellow-right rating of Pomona’s speech codes. College policy defines bias-related incidents as "expressions of hostility against another individual (or group) because of the other person’s (or group’s) race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity or expression and sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of these characteristics."
Pomona College is one of the five Claremont Colleges, all of which share similar definitions of bias-related incidents. Pursuant to a shared protocol for handling these incidents, students at all of the Claremont Colleges receive e-mail notifications any time a bias-related incident occurs on any of the five campuses. An editorial on this phenomenon appeared in TSL around this same time last year; the student who wrote it, Brendan Rowan, described how "As students of the 5Cs, we have become uncomfortably accustomed to the ‘bias-related incident’ e-mails that we receive on, it seems, a far too frequent basis."
Indeed, Torch readers may remember some of the bias incidents that have occurred at the Claremont Colleges over the past several years:
- In February of 2008, during the contested Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, someone triggered the bias incident protocol by writing "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" on a student’s erasable whiteboard in the residence halls at Harvey Mudd College.
- In November of 2008, the protocol was triggered by an advertisement for a "Wild Wild West" party at Claremont McKenna College featuring a picture of Jesus holding a beer and a cigarette, with the caption, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the West and have come to party."
- In April of 2009, a chalk drawing of a penis on an outdoor wall on Harvey Mudd’s campus led to yet another campus-wide "bias incident" e-mail.
As ludicrous as this may seem, the Claremont Colleges are far from alone in issuing stern and serious official responses to what most people would consider simply silly and perhaps juvenile attempts at humor. At Skidmore College, for example, one of the bias incidents investigated during the 2009-2010 academic year was "Penis drawn on white board with the words: ‘the cockness monster was here.’" At the University of Georgia, the university police were called to investigate pursuant to the bias reporting protocol after a bulletin board in the Boggs Hall dormitory was changed from reading "Welcome to Boggs 3rd Floor" to "Welcome to Boobs 3rd Floor."
At Pomona, the latest bias incident to trigger the e-mail protocol was "a Queer Resource Center (QRC) flyer at Claremont Graduate University that had been repeatedly removed from a bulletin board." (Unlike the acts of speech and expression discussed earlier, the removal of an approved flyer from a bulletin board may indeed be a legitimate disciplinary offense. However, this would be the case regardless of what the flyer pertained to and whether it was removed out of "bias" or simply, say, to make room for another flyer.)
TSL interviewed Darren Mooko, the Pomona administrator who sent the e-mail, and his apparent misunderstanding of what constitutes free speech is troubling. On the one hand, Mooko seems to grasp that not all offensive speech can be subject to disciplinary action; he tells TSL that "Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offense. You don’t have the right to not be offended." So far, so good, but here’s where things get sticky:
"The one word we always drill down to is ‘hostility,’" Mooko said. Many offensive incidents occur, but only some of them are hostile to a group or person because of his or her identity.
So offensive speech is permissible, so long as it is not due to hostility on the part of the speaker? Unfortunately for Pomona—which, although private, is bound by California law binding private non-sectarian institutions to the free speech protections of the California Constitution and the First Amendment—this assertion is categorically untrue. Unless speech falls within one of the narrow categories unprotected by the First Amendment—such as harassment, true threats, or obscenity, as those terms are defined by law—it is protected regardless of the speaker’s motive.
There is no question that administrators like Mooko are well-intentioned in their desire to make college a comfortable and welcoming experience for students of all backgrounds. But taking official action every time someone makes an off-color or otherwise offensive joke or comment on campus has a chilling effect on free expression across the Claremont Colleges. What’s more, it does nothing to prepare students for life outside of the relatively sheltered college environment, where no one is going to step in if one encounters a graffiti penis or a crass comment about a political candidate. The in loco parentis approach inherent in the bias incident protocol is inconsistent with the freedoms to which Pomona college students, the overwhelming majority of whom are adults, are morally and legally entitled.