CU Regents amend campus free speech policy
Vote addresses recent wave of nationwide campus protests
On Sept. 14, the University of Colorado Regents unanimously voted to amend laws and policies related to academic freedom and free expression on University of Colorado campuses. These changes are intended to allow students to respectfully debate their professors and fellow students in the classroom and allow faculty to express themselves freely outside of the classroom.
Student groups can also invite controversial speakers to appear at campus events so long as there aren’t any major security concerns related to the event.
Patrick O’Rourke—the Vice President, University Counsel, and Secretary of the Board of Regents—said the new policy wasn’t a response to any incidences on campus or specific concerns from students or faculty; although when amending free expression policies, the regents “were able to learn from what has been happening at other institutions around the country.” O’Rourke worked with the Faculty Council, Staff Council, and Intercampus Student Forum when revising the academic freedom and free expression policy.
Regent John Carson added, “Folks seem pleased with the new language. I am pleased CU has made a strong statement in favor of free speech and diversity of thought at the University.”
Regent Jack Kroll said he felt motivated to amend the policy because of “an experience [he] had as a student in high school that echoes what some Republican students have said they’ve experienced.” Kroll described a “brutally humiliating experience” from his high school years when “[he] spoke out against the war in Iraq and was castigated and made a mockery of by Sgt. Force, who was the teacher in [his] JROTC class.”
Within the last two years, many university campuses around the country, including UC Berkeley and the University of Florida, have run into controversy when high-profile conservative speakers were featured at on-campus events. In March, conservative pundit Ann Coulter was invited to an event at CU Boulder hosted by Turning Point USA—a conservative student organization. Coulter has made many contentious comments over the last year, including referring to immigrant children who have been separated from their parents after crossing the border as “child actors.”
CU Boulder also held an event in 2017 featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor of Breitbart. Yiannopoulos, who often criticizes feminists, has used Twitter in the past to encourage his followers to harass high-profile women, such as Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, online. Both events were met with protests from hundreds of community members, and three protesters were arrested outside the event featuring Yiannopoulos.
Leslie Smith, a former educator and candidate for CU Regent at Large, believes the Boulder campus has done relatively well with hosting events with controversial speakers as “we have not had any issues like Berkeley.” UC Berkeley notably had 11 arrests when Yiannopoulos held an unofficial rally on campus in 2017, an event which also cost the university about $800,000 for security.
Smith believes CU Boulder also made an effective choice in featuring an “alternative event” the same day Yiannopoulos spoke with transgender rights activist Laverne Cox, who highlighted the importance of diversity and inclusion at her event. During her speech at CU Boulder, Cox said, “A lot of people are under attack right now, and we have to figure out how to come together.”
Smith thinks it’s important for universities to remain places that have “a free exchange of ideas.” Smith adds that it’s possible that faculty members need more training, similarly to the sexual harassment training they already receive, to create an “environment of respect in the classroom” where students and professors can express their opinions freely with minimal conflict.
CU Boulder will likely continue to hold events with controversial conservative speakers. As recently as Oct. 3, CU’s Turning Point USA chapter held an event called “Campus Clash” with founder Charlie Kirk as well as Turning Point USA’s Communications Director and conservative activist Candace Owens.
Owens recently posted a controversial tweet that called Dr. Christine Ford, the woman who spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee to describe her alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a liar and included the hashtag “#LockHerUp.”
The International Socialist Organization in Boulder was one of the groups to organize a counter-protest outside the event. The protesters chanted, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” and “No racists, no sexists, they do not represent us!”
Brandon Daniels, a student at CU Boulder who writes for the newspaper Socialist Worker, said it’s telling that Turning Point USA titled their event “Campus Clash,” as their “only purpose is to piss people off.” However, Daniels wanted to clarify that he’s “not trying to deny their free speech,” and “we just want to make it known and register our opposition.”
Daniels added that he didn’t like the way UC Berkeley handled the controversy around Yiannopoulos speaking on campus in 2017 as activists “can’t ask the university to censor conservatives.”
Eric Goodman, a member of Denver-Boulder International Marxist Tendency, also attended the protest against “Campus Clash.” Goodman said, “I don’t think hate-mongers or hate speech has any place in our society.” Goodman added that for students who belong to groups that recent conservative speakers at Boulder regularly criticize, their presence on campus makes it seem like “the campus you’re on endorses this kind of speech.”
Goodman also attended a protest earlier this year when Ann Coulter spoke at the CU Boulder campus. “The ideas she spreads divide our society, spread hate,” Goodman said of Coulter.
Meanwhile, at CU Denver, which has not hosted nearly as many controversial speakers in recent years as Boulder, it’s unclear if student groups, particularly political student organizations, feel that the CU Regents’ recent changes to the free expression policy address their most immediate concerns.
Brett Smith, the CU Denver Chair of Young Democratic Socialists of America at Auraria, said that none of the club’s members have experienced discrimination on campus, though “we have experienced severe hurdles to creating and maintaining a student organization on campus,” an issue that seems to “stem more from inefficient communication procedures within AHEC [Auraria Higher Education Center].” Smith added, “It would help with student involvement if these issues were discussed and ameliorated.”
Maria Schanhals, President of the CU Denver chapter of Turning Point USA, is optimistic about the changes. “It’s great as a conservative student to see the regents commit to opening up this space for all students,” Schanhals said.
She adds that while she hasn’t personally experienced any hostility from faculty, there’s been instances during class when “someone says something vile about conservatives or Republicans, and it causes [her] personally to shut down and not really want to voice any of [her] opinions considering the political climate of the room.”
Schanhals thinks, overall, CU Denver has offered a welcoming environment for conservative students. “There are more conservative students on campus than you would think,” Schanhals said. “We’ve had people from all walks of life with all sorts of appearances sign up for our club, and it’s really amazing to see that CU Denver allows exchange like this to take place.”
Additionally, Schanhals feels the environment at CU Denver “shows conservative students that they not only have an ally through our organization, but they also have an ally through the school.”