At MSU-Denver, the president won’t protect you from what you don’t want to hear

Metropolitan State University of Denver leaders looked at the recurring flare-ups on the nation’s college campuses — where controversial tweets and email, chat room screen shots and student spats explode into storms — and have set a new policy declaring free expression “indispensable” to fulfilling their educational mission.

They’re joining a handful of campuses where back to school this month means navigating minefields of potentially offensive ideas under free speech initiatives designed to combat “groupthink” and spur dialogue across differences.

Metro’s new approach won’t coddle marginalized groups by designating official separate forums (informal “safe spaces” aren’t prohibited), school officials say. It follows the law on allowing hate speech and doesn’t confine protest to “free speech zones,” which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled illegal. It also encourages respect, treating an attack on one as an attack on all – but without a threat of punishment for saying something hurtful.

“I do not want to be a place where students think we’re going to shut down speakers, events or dialogues because some part of our community disagrees with what people have to say,” Metro President Janine Davidson said Wednesday.

“It is not my job to shut down speech. It is my job to teach you to have respectful dialogue. There should be no expectation on this campus that the president is going to protect you from what you don’t want to hear.”

This approach grew from a campus task force and a free speech course Davidson co-taught with Metro’s general counsel David Fine, Denver’s former city attorney. “We want to create a culture where our community can engage in robust and respectful debate on critical issues. If anywhere, this should happen at universities,” Fine said. “It is imperative to producing students who become contributors to a healthy civic society.”

Metro’s initiative reflects the evolving status of freedom of expression on college campuses as school officials try to stay within the requirements of the U.S. Constitution while also facing student, faculty and marketing department demands for comfort and safety.

Davidson acknowledged brittle conditions primed for a social media-accelerated free speech flare-up any moment. “I’m not under any delusion that I could head off any of that.”

On Colorado campuses, University of Colorado officials in Boulder in recent years faced pressure from students and faculty to fire visiting conservative scholar John Eastman for his political views and role advising then-President Donald trump in the Jan. 6 insurrection. CU’s leaders refused.

More recently, CU-Denver in December 2020 landed on a free speech watchdog group’s target list for a campus email policy that banned inappropriate material that could be offensive. Attorneys with Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based non-profit that monitors 500 school policies nationwide, objected to CU-Denver’s restriction as over-reaching, likely to lead to First Amendment free speech violations. (CU-Denver changed the policy, avoiding a potential lawsuit.)  Last March, a Fort Lewis College flier posting policy prohibiting hate speech made the target list.  FIRE attorneys say they field rising numbers of complaints from students, faculty and administrators – more than 1,000 a year now —  and consider lawsuits if necessary to protect free expression.

“It’s a really hard job to be a college campus administrator right now. You have got to please everybody. You have got to protect the ‘brand’ of the school.  But the purpose of your school is not to be a brand. It is to be a place where education happens. These things are really in tension these days,” said Alex Morey, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy. “A lawsuit is never off the table.”

Beyond Metro State, leaders at other schools also are focusing on what the law requires and launching freedom of expression initiatives.

This week at CU-Boulder, Chancellor Phil DiStefano welcomed students back with a speech calling for restoring the university to its rightful place in a democracy as “a house of conflict” where students hear and navigate divergent opinions — “less of an ivory tower” and “more of a public square.” At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, school officials distributed a guide to understanding the First Amendment and free speech.

“What I’m interested in is what we can do on our college campuses not only for preparing students for the workforce but preparing them to be good citizens for our democracy,” DiStefano said in an interview, lamenting impacts of social media communication.

“Public colleges and private ones, too, haven’t done a good job of fostering free expression in the classroom the way we should, having civil debates about issues, so students can make up their own minds based on what they are hearing pro and con about an idea,” he said.

“We’ve gotten away from free expression, debate, different points of view….. Higher education just has to get back to that.”

This post-pandemic push to ensure free expression aligns with findings of a recent Knight Foundation survey:

  •  A majority of Americans  believe schools should allow students to be exposed to all types of speech even if it is offensive or biased
  •  84% of college students say free speech rights are critical for democracy
  • 65% of students characterize the climate at their school or campus as stifling, leading to self-censorship for fears others might find thoughts offensive
  • Less than half of students say they feel comfortable expressing disagreement with teachers and fellow students
  • A shrinking share, around 22% of Americans believe colleges should protect students by prohibiting speech they may find offensive or biased

“Open inquiry and respectful discourse is a threatened value” in the United States and college students, especially those who grew up under social media and pandemic-induced isolation, “are arriving on the most diverse campuses ever without the skills for having conversations across differences,” said Jacqueline Pfeffer Merill, director of the campus free expression project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a think tank that guides college leaders and members of Congress.

“Faculty and students want to support a culture of open inquiry. But there’s a censorious minority that is willing to engage, using social media, to shut down discourses. They really have an out-sized influence,” Merrill said, lauding new policies at Metro and other schools.

“A fear of the call-out and social media consequences, driven by that censorious minority, has undermined the experiences of the rest of the student body. Half of students say they’ve held back in class. Everybody is profoundly concerned about that,” Merrill said. “Self-censorship is an obstacle to campuses carrying out their teaching mission and their civic mission where students learn to stress-test their ideas and to say something even when they think others will disagree – the core work of higher education.”

College campuses across Colorado and the country still remain largely hostile environments for free expression, according to the latest reports from oversight groups. In Colorado, FIRE attorneys this month labeled the free speech policies at Adams State University and Fort Lewis College as code red for restrictions likely to lead to unconstitutional First Amendment violations.

The policies at most colleges and universities in the state rated yellow, for caution, due to potentially chilling provisions, typically around bias and perceived hurtfulness. Only CU-Boulder, Western Colorado University and Colorado Mesa University received green ratings as acceptable.

A separate FIRE ranking of 200 schools based on surveys of students, faculty and administrators, incorporating those official policies, encompassed several Colorado campuses: CU-Boulder (34th – slightly above average); Colorado School of Mines (75th – average); CSU-Fort Collins (102nd, average); University of Denver (110th – average); and Colorado College (168th – below average). FIRE officials based CC’s ranking on survey results indicating relatively low student comfort expressing ideas and feeble administrative backing for free expression.

Metro now will move from yellow to green, FIRE officials said after reviewing the new policy.

The policy says Metro’s “commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive community demands an equally strong commitment for freedom of expression.” It includes language that FIRE attorneys scrutinized closely – declaring an obligation to ensure basic respect with free expression “in ways that respect the human dignity of others” that is “free from behavior that interferes with their ability to study, grow and attain their full potential.” However, because the policy does not threaten punishment and generally emphasizes more speech on contentious issues, encouraging students to raise their voices rather than resort to censorship, the attorneys classified it overall as superior.

These rankings and policy ratings are done to reward schools that protect and defend freedom of speech and guide students and their parents toward those schools. The spotlighting began amid the long-simmering rancor on changing campuses around free speech and so-called cancel culture, at a time when administrators widely have prioritized protection from statements that students and faculty find hurtful.

A campus freedom of expression discussion scheduled for Thursday at Metro State features Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who has celebrated the friendship between ideologically opposed late U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended operas, went souvenir shopping and rode on an elephant together.

The discussion is for “practicing,” Davidson said. “I said early on as president I wasn’t going to prohibit speakers and that, if you don’t agree, then show up and bring you’re A-game intellectually. Don’t try to shut people down.”

Source: Read Full Article