This year the Colorado legislature, with broad bipartisan support, banned publicly funded colleges from stifling their students’ right to free speech and assembly. The new law addresses a serious problem that has plagued Colorado.
Under the new law, colleges may not punish students because of their expression. “Expression” is defined as “verbal or written ... communication of ideas ... public assembly, protests, speaking ... holding signs, circulating petitions, distributing written materials, or voter registration activities.” Colleges can no longer restrict free speech to a particular area. Nor may schools unreasonably restrict the time, place and manner of speech activities.
The new law also allows students to recover court costs and attorney’s fees from legal actions they may have to take to enforce the law. To ensure the preservation of the academic environment, the law does not grant students the right to interrupt or block activities. Nor does it protect commercial advertisements.
The reform is long overdue. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, students were prevented from holding an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” on campus. In this form of protest, baked goods are sold based on racial factors. For example, a minority student would pay less for a cookie than a white student. The bake sale was meant to critique how racial preferences works in practice. CU claimed that the students were engaging in discrimination.
A national public interest law firm, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), stepped in and threatened to file a lawsuit. FIRE pointed out that the bake sale was “a political protest, not an exercise in discrimination.” Fearing legal action, CU consented to the display so long as the prices were changed to “Suggested Prices” and race was only used as a “plus” factor.
FIRE also assisted students at Colorado State University. CSU prohibited “expressions of hostility,” and confined peaceful assembly to a single area. That area required reservations two weeks in advance of an event. Further, CSU banned any advertising in the residence hall that used “offensive language.” Under the threat of a FIRE lawsuit, CSU revised its anti-speech policies.
The new statewide law does not protect campus speech rights for students at private schools. Yet those schools are often the worst offenders.
For example, Colorado College, a private liberal arts college in Colorado springs, punished two writers who parodied a feminist newsletter. The feminist newsletter, The Monthly Rag, discussed how to create “the appearance of a phallus under clothing.” The Rag noted male castration fears arising from tales of “toothed vagina.”
The parody, The Monthly Bag, included quotes from famous speakers about moral courage and the value of free speech. It provided some men’s health and romance advice, interesting facts about military equipment, and definitions of the words “censor” or “political radicalism.” The school found the two male authors guilty of “violence” for their “juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality.”
The state legislature chose not to address private schools’ clampdown on free speech, even though such schools receive much government funding, through student loans and research grants. Arguably, the autonomy of private institutions should be protected even if the autonomy is misused.
Hopefully the new law for public colleges sets a standard for private institutions to follow voluntarily. To ensure that ideas aren’t stamped out, students of private schools should speak out against censorship, either with their voices or their dollars. Higher education exists to expose student to new ideas, not to suppress them.
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