Earlier this summer, we suggested that Regis University was not living up to its free speech promises by turning to censorship and investigation after a student hosted a controversial “Social Justice Bake Sale.” In doing so, the university offered an instructive example of how universities should not respond to campus controversies. But Regis’ recent decision to end its investigation against the student at the heart of the bake sale controversy suggests that Regis may be attempting to plot a new course.
In case you missed the months-long debacle, here’s a short recap: On March 16, Regis student Alex Beck earned approval for and held a bake sale in protest of the university’s Social Justice Week, and offered different prices for baked goods depending on students’ gender, race, sexuality, or religion. Bake sales like these have caused controversy at campuses across the country.
After Beck stood by his table for about an hour, Dean of Students Diane McSheehy approached him and told Beck that, because his event was being held in protest of Social Justice Week, the table constituted a “demonstration.” She said Beck had not followed the school’s demonstration guidelines and shut down his table.
FIRE wrote to Regis President John P. Fitzgibbons on March 22, citing Regis’ “academic traditions of honesty, freedom of expression and open inquiry” and asking the university to agree that administrators would not shut down unpopular student events just by labeling them as demonstrations and claiming they require special permission.
Ignoring that request, Fitzgibbons instead chose to publicly allege that the bake sale constituted a “crystal clear” violation of federal law and stated that administrators “took care of [the bake sale] as soon as it was noticed” and “got on it when we understood that’s what was going on.”
FIRE wrote to Fitzgibbons again on April 14, explaining that regardless of how offensive the campus community perceived the bake sale to be, it was ultimately an act of satirical speech meant to make a statement about Regis’ Social Justice Week, and not a violation of federal law.
On May 2, Regis escalated the situation again. Equal Opportunity & Title IX Compliance Coordinator Michelle Spradling issued a notice informing Beck that he was under investigation for possible violations of Regis’ “Nondiscrimination and Sexual Misconduct” policy:
We received a report that you may have violated the Regis University Nondiscrimination and Sexual Misconduct policy (“Policy”), particularly the definition of “discrimination” and “harassment.”
Specifically, it is alleged that you:
- Sold baked goods on Regis University property at distinct, preferential and detrimental prices based upon an individual’s gender, race, religion and sexual orientation on March 16, 2017.
- Made discriminatory comments to students, including: “white people are smarter than black people,” and “black people commit more crimes than white people,” on March 16, 2017.
Three days later, on May 5, Regis finally responded to FIRE’s first two letters, arguing that “Regis University students are welcome to engage in freedom of expression so long as they follow the University’s rules” — which was a longer way of saying that Regis students have free speech until administrators arbitrarily decide they don’t.
In a subsequent letter that same month, FIRE explained that, unless Regis dropped its investigation into Beck’s bake sale, the university must “admit to the campus community that Regis University does not, and will not, protect free speech.” In our coverage of that letter, we promised that we would do our part to ensure that prospective Regis students understand that they cannot come to campus with the certainty that they will be able to enjoy the free speech rights promised by the university.
However, it now appears that Regis’ months-long effort to punish Beck is finally at an end. On August 4, Beck received a letter from Student Conduct and Off-Campus Community Director Matthew Sullivan informing him that Jody Luna, the third-party investigator hired to look into the allegations against Beck, determined that there were “insufficient facts” to determine that he had violated Regis policy or federal law:
Per our policy, Ms. Luna completed her investigation and presented her investigatory findings to me. In the investigation, she noted “that numerous students were justifiably offended by Mr. Beck’s “bake sale” and that he priced items based on the purchaser’s protected status. However, there were insufficient facts to find that his conduct violated specific Regis policy or the law.”
Accordingly, the investigator determined there was not a preponderance of evidence to constitute a violation of the Nondiscrimination and Sexual Misconduct Policy, violations of the Regis University Standards of Conduct related to violations of Federal, state, or local laws, or related to unauthorized recording.
While the investigation never should have happened in the first place, and Regis’ decision to hire a third-party investigator to look into protected student speech is unnerving at best, we hope the university’s decision in Beck’s case signals a permanent change in the way Regis responds to campus controversies. We’ll be watching to ensure that Regis doesn’t make the same mistakes again.