Several weeks ago, I described the state of free speech at CSU. This month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national non-profit that monitors the state of free speech on college campuses, once again surveyed CSU’s policies and gave our university a “yellow light,” meaning there’s still on the books “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”
In my previous column, I identified several sets of conflicting policies that leave it unclear for students the rules are regarding holding events on the Lory Student Center Plaza or posting advertisements in the residence halls. If these conflicts were all that stood in the way of CSU earning a “green light” for clearly protecting the free speech rights of students, I wouldn’t bother writing about it here. Unfortunately, there’s more.
FIRE’s assessment of the university’s vague policies notes in particular the the Student Conduct Code, which bans behavior that “endangers the … psychological health” of individuals; the General Catalog, which prohibits “personal abuse;” and the Residence Hall Handbook, which bans “intimidation,” among other vaguely defined behaviors.
The lack of clear definitions in these policies means that university administrators could easily use these policies to crack down on clearly protected speech.
Did someone stand too close to you while making an emphatic point? Most people would consider that intimidating. Did your roommate offer a blunt assessment of your social standing? That definitely could have an impact on your psychological health. Has an ex maliciously shared information about you that you’d rather not have revealed? Such actions could be interpreted as abusive behavior.
These are unfortunate, yet everyday occurrences on a college campus. But they’re all constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment. However, if you take a strict reading of CSU’s policies, they’re also banned.
Some administrators have claimed that students would never be prosecuted for constitutionally protected speech. However, if that’s the case, why leave the vagueness in university policies?
Similarly vague policies have been used in some pretty outrageous ways: At the University of New Hampshire, a student was evicted from his residence hall on “harassment” charges for posting a satirical flyer suggesting that women should take the stairs to avoid the “Freshman 15.” A University of Central Florida student was charged with “abuse” for calling a student government candidate “a jerk and a fool” on Facebook.
While these vague policies are on the books at CSU, students have every reason to believe that these sorts of things could happen here because they’ve happened elsewhere.
Additionally, our university’s policies would likely not pass muster if held up to a court challenge. In 2007, a federal judge struck down as unconstitutional a San Francisco State University policy that used similarly vague language banning “abuse,” “intimidation” and threats to students’ “health” — terms very similar to CSU’s policies.
It’s not like CSU doesn’t know what the standard is for conduct they can legally prohibit: It’s actions or speech that “has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a person’s academic performance or work, or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive academic or work environment.” This longstanding legal definition is already part of CSU’s General Catalog and there’s absolutely no reason other university policies shouldn’t be similarly phrased.
The only reason I can think of for continuing to use the vague language is to trick students into giving up their rights — to make them believe that certain types of unpleasant speech are prohibited, when in fact, they’re constitutionally protected.
Changing these policies doesn’t mean CSU has to abandon any of its educational or advocacy efforts to eliminate bigotry, sexism, discrimination or intolerance on campus.
As Judge Wayne Brazil noted in striking down San Francisco State’s unconstitutional policies, “It’s fine to say, ‘We hope you’re civil to each other.” It’s not fine to say, ‘We’ll punish you if you’re not.'”
Two years ago, CSU revised the worst of its policies restricting speech on campus. It’s time for our university to drop these vague policies as well, and for Colorado’s “Green University” to finally earn FIRE’s “green light.”
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.