As the furor – no pun intended – over Colorado high school teacher Jay Bennish’s in-class comparison of President Bush to Hitler subsides, a panel of CSU professors and officials on Tuesday night shared their views on the topic of free speech on campus.
“I think the way you operate is that you’re even-handed,” said political science professor Robert Lawrence, about classroom political discussions. “If you’re going to criticize the Bush administration for the war, you should give their justification for the war.”
Lawrence said that faculty should label their own personal views as simply their opinions.
“I opposed the Vietnam War and the Iraq War and I’ve never had a problem because I’m even-handed,” he said.
The panel was hosted by the Diversity Advocate Council, a branch of ASCSU, and featured Lawrence, along with Chief Dexter Yarbrough of the CSU Police Department; Laurence Pendleton, Associate General Counsel; and Mari Strombom, director of Campus Activities.
One topic batted around was the issue of racist fliers – both the blatantly bigoted leaflets left on cars last month by a white supremacist group, and the apparently unintentionally insensitive ones passed around by a student group to promote a Referendums C and D forum.
“Legally, (hate groups) have the right to say what they want,” Strombom said. “You don’t have to listen to it. You can turn away.”
In the case of the fliers left on the cars, however, the group was breaking the law by littering because on-campus flier distribution isn’t allowed on cars.
At CSU, students and non-students alike can rant about anything in the free speech zone in the Lory Student Plaza, but the right to free speech ends when one tries to incite violence.
Yarbrough said that the job of the police is to protect the safety of everyone, even those whose viewpoints may be repugnant to many.
“As an African American, I don’t like the views of the KKK,” he said, prompting Pendleton, who is also black, to jokingly ask, “Really?”
After the laughter of the some 30 audience members settled, the chief continued.
“As a sworn police officer, I have a duty to protect them from you,” he said. “They have a right to peaceable assemble.”
The Referendum C and D fliers – which had the words, “Does CSU’s Future Hang on Referendums C and D?” along with an image of a figure hanging from a tree – were used by the Collegiate Farm Bureau to promote the October forum.
“Some people found them to be offensive, but other people of good character and intention didn’t see that,” Pendleton said. “There lie the challenges relating to diversity.”
The education process, he added, would help bridge the gap and show people why certain images and words are hurtful to some.
But one thing all panelists agreed on was the importance of the seminal document that ensures the right to free speech.
“As we continue to have a multicultural society,” Pendleton said, “at the end of the day, we have to be focused on the document that guides us all: the U.S. Constitution.”