I never thought I’d have to fight for my First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. But three years ago, in October of 2006, I found myself doing exactly that. I was working on the political campaign for Amendment 44, a statewide ballot measure to legalize the possession of small quantities of marijuana.
Residence hall staff at CSU refused to allow the posting of flyers for this measure, objecting to the prominent depiction of a marijuana leaf in the campaign’s logo. Only after the American Civil Liberties Union spoke out publicly against the university’s outrageous actions did CSU relent on its suppression of constitutionally protected political speech.
Following this incident, several student organizations, student leaders in the Associated Students of CSU and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a national organization that defends free speech rights at universities nationwide, worked together to bring attention to some of CSU most egregious policies.
For example, CSU had a policy which banned advertising in residence halls that so much as mentioned illegal drugs, meaning, for example, that you couldn’t post a flyer for a debate about drug laws. That policy was eliminated. CSU revised a policy that required two weeks notice to organize a protest on campus. A policy that banned “expressions of hostility” was rewritten — another victory for free speech on campus.
FIRE tracks the severity of restrictions on free speech at hundreds of universities. Since these improvements in 2007, FIRE downgraded their rating of CSU’s policies from “red light” to “yellow light,” noting that there’s still “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” We’ve made progress, but clearly not enough. What are some of these ambiguous policies?
Some of them are apparent conflicts between policies published by different parts of the university. For instance, while the Lory Student Center’s Web site says that groups who want to, say, protest on the LSC Plaza are “strongly encouraged to coordinate their activities” with the university, and the General Catalog still claims that groups “must coordinate their activities” through the university. No public institution can require citizens, students or anyone to gain approval to peacefully protest. This right is central to our First Amendment freedom to “peaceably assemble.”
Similarly, while the Residence Hall Handbook states that advertising in dorms “may not promote illegal behavior including the underage use of alcohol or illegal drug use,” The Source, a guide for student organizations published by Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement, states that “advertisements posted in Residence Halls may not include promotion of alcoholic beverages and/or drugs.”
While one prohibits promoting illegal activity only, SLiCE’s version is broader and could be easily be interpreted to restrict perfectly legal activity as well, such as an advertisement for CSU’s popular beer-brewing course or a student organization’s pub crawl.
University staff have known about these contradictions since at least early 2008, and the problematic policies haven’t been revised, even though these documents have been republished at least once since then.
CSU’s General Catalog states that the university’s policy is to “encourage members of the University community to engage in discussion, to exchange ideas and opinions, and to speak, write and publish freely.”
In the search for knowledge, these freedoms are vital. But the fact that the university hasn’t bothered to make its policies on speech on campus consistent even with each other, let alone the First Amendment, doesn’t speak highly of its commitment to these ideals. What’s even more troubling about these contradictions is that they exist in precisely those policies that students pressed for changes in — the policies on advertising in the residence halls and on assembly on campus.
I wish this was all there was to criticize CSU for in the free speech category, but, in a few weeks, I’ll detail how some of CSU’s other policies run the risk of restricting students’ First Amendment rights. Until then, you can read about it yourself at thefire.org — search for “Colorado State University” and read about policies that may threaten your freedom to speak freely at CSU.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.