Rethinking Free Expression at CC
By Ethan Cutler and Sara Fleming; illustration by Anna Gilbertson
Ask someone at CC what they think of the racist Yik Yak posts made last year and the consequent punishments and you will get one of three general responses. 1: “I’m glad those racist students are gone.” 2: “The punishment was way too harsh.” Or, what we’ve most often heard, 3: “I don’t even want to talk about it.” We’ve learned that in spite of countless Butler Center sessions and a schoolwide assembly, most students and professors would much rather stay silent than go on record for a magazine.
None of these responses bode well for CC’s hopes to “continue the conversation.” The issue has pitted defenders of speech against defenders of the oppressed, and left others unwilling to address any of these complex issues at all. The administration’s punishment of Thad Pryor and Lou Henriques left a distinct chill on campus discourse. Because CC’s speech code is broad and interpreted on a case by case basis, students do not know what they can and can’t say on campus. The threat of censorship hangs on the words of many students we’ve spoken to. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe censorship would eliminate bigoted speech from CC and protect the dignity of marginalized students. There is a tension between the right to free speech and the right to dignity, and Yik Yak seems to be a nearly impenetrable border that has divided students into one or another of these two camps.
But this rift in the CC community is about more than Yik Yak—it’s about what we value most. We need to examine what the Yik Yak decision says about what CC is, and we need to think about what CC should be.
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We (the authors) disagree about the relative importance of the right to free expression and the right to dignity. But we both think it’s imperative that students begin thinking about the issue and discussing it openly. Below, we each take moderate stances that we think are representative of the best reasoning on each side of the debate. We cite Yik Yak as an example of the ideas we discuss, but ultimately this article is forward-looking. We are concerned not with what we have been able to say, but with what we should be able to say. At the end, we recommend some specific changes to the way CC handles cases of free expression.
Colorado College’s mission statement begins, “At Colorado College our goal is to provide the finest liberal arts education in the country.” Central to a liberal arts education—let alone the finest one in the country—is free expression.
Free expression is imperative to all learning. After all, how, at the most basic level, do we learn? In the words of Steven Pinker, “We come up with ideas about the nature of reality, and test them against that reality, allowing the world to falsify the mistaken ones. [This], of course, depends upon the exercise of free speech.” We learn what is true by subjecting all ideas to vigorous attempts to refute them. We must insist on this process of hypothesizing and refuting because all other methods of gaining knowledge—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, intuition, etc.—are far less reliable. Censorship assumes that some claims do not need to be continually refuted because they are so obviously wrong. But all opinions need to be continually refuted to be continually proven wrong. No truths are so permanent that they mustn’t be constantly questioned. When some opinions are censored, that cannot happen. Unpopular speech must be allowed because its presence ensures refutation, and that refutation is essential to intellectual dialogue. The comment “Black women matter, they’re just not hot,” provides no intellectual contribution to CC. But that comment sparked countless conversations that continued the vital process of proving racism to be irrational bigotry. Maybe we would ideally all engage with issues of race simply because they are important, but in reality, people need something to provoke them. That’s not to say we should encourage offensive speech—only that we should allow it to a degree.
In politics, to censor hate speech is to taint the political process. Central to the validity of every law that is passed by our government is that everyone has a right to speak their mind. In many ways, oppressed groups have had their ability to speak stripped away. This happens often via the educational system and the criminal justice system. It also occurs when bigots shout down an oppressed minority. We must fight to rectify oppressed peoples’ ability to speak and the damage done to their right to live dignified lives. But the way to stop all this is not by censoring the speech of bigots.
When, for example, anti-discrimination laws are proposed and passed, racists are quick to voice their objections, often in the form of hateful speech. When that happens, hate speech becomes political. To censor hate speech, then, gives bigots the right to say, “the procedure wasn’t fair, because you didn’t allow us to voice our ideas.” They would be right to say so because when political speech—even indirectly political speech—is censored, the democratic process is no longer truly democratic. In the words of Ronald Dworkin, “It would not have been fair—we would have forfeited democratic legitimacy—had we denied racists a vote. Denying them a voice is as much an infirmity in the democratic process as denying them a vote.”
Just as we strive for openness and democracy in the public sphere, we must strive for openness and democracy at CC.
But CC is not the public sphere you describe. We are a community, not a nation-state, and when we are admitted to CC, as students or faculty or administrators, we agree to treat each other with respect. We should, then, be able define a more stringent standard of what “respect” is. We can distinguish between speech that contributes to the campus discourse and speech that only harms people.
Free speech is supposed to inhibit the establishment of dogma, and enable us to have productive dialogue around everything. But ironically, free speech has effectively become dogma itself. It has been so widely accepted as true that people talk about it as if it needs no defense.
This is a fallacy. No right is given to us without limitations or consequences, and none are free from being constrained by other rights. Speech is no exception. We’ve already decided that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater and you can’t threaten someone with violence. When speech is harmful to the degree that it impinges on an individual or community’s right to physical safety, it can justifiably be disciplined or censored.
We ought to expand on the definition of what kind of speech is harmful, and what kind of safety we are concerned with. In the context of hate speech, our responsibility to respect others in their full humanity is more important than our freedom to say whatever demeaning thing we want. In an academic living community where the equal status of every member is vital, the simple truth is that we have to decrease individual liberty to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity.
Ethan writes that even repulsive speech has the potential to contribute to productive conversation, albeit in a roundabout way. The Yik Yaks, for example, did inspire a conversation about issues of race. But that wasn’t just the doing of the comments themselves—it was pushed to the forefront of students’ concerns by a school-wide assembly organized by the victims. These students shouldn’t have to bear the weight of hate speech as a price for educating the masses about their own subjugation to hate. We can have these discussions about what’s wrong with racist things without saying racist things.
We need to first take a step back to understand why these comments were so harmful to students in the first place. The Yik Yaks were not problematic merely because they were mean and insensitive. Because of their racialized nature, they threatened the right to dignity of students of color on campus. To see how this works, we need to recognize historic and systemic forces of oppression.
“I can’t talk about microaggressions in isolation from talking about oppression,” explains Paul Buckley, director of the Butler Center at CC. “In a lot of ways microaggressions are really the way in which systems of oppression operate at a very interpersonal level and that’s why it matters. We use this metaphor of a thousand cuts. A thousand small cuts is a major gash. So when people who are from marginalized groups experience these tiny cuts day in and day out, they’re bleeding profusely.”
So when you look at one of those Yik Yaks, it may not seem like much. When you consider that they were part of a barrage of racist comments, part of a lifelong narrative that tells some students that they are worth less than others, and part of a centuries-long history of hostility to students of color, they mean a lot.
Microaggressions and other offensive language can be harmful—I agree. But sometimes people overreact to innocuous speech, and proceed to seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable. While this concern might not be as important as maintaining someone’s dignity, disproportionate punishment of speech can have wide-reaching implications. I’d say that the original punishments of Pryor and Henriques have made many students feel like they can’t openly talk about issues of race, free speech, etc. We must take time and care in the punishment of an act of expression to avoid shutting down a campus-wide dialogue instead of starting one.
Specifically, we must consider the content of speech, the effect of the speech, and the intent of speech. CC seems to judge offensive speech by effect—at least, mostly by effect. But if a professor unintentionally offended a student and the student felt significantly harmed, should the professor be treated the same as if they had offended a student maliciously? Certainly not; the feeling behind speech matters. The trouble is that intent, like effect, is hard to measure because all you have to go on is the word of the offender and the word of the offended. This is why above both the effect and the intent of speech, we must make our judgements on the actual content of speech. This, too, comes with difficulties: Whoever judges the speech brings their own biases and sensitivities to the table. Still, better to judge by the actual content of expression than by the effect it had. To judge solely by effect is to sacrifice any objectivity.
At CC, about five months ago, students protested the screening of Stonewall, a movie about the beginnings of the gay rights movement, because it minimized the roles of transgender people of color in the actual Stonewall riots. The students rightly pointed out that it was absurd that certain members of the LGBTQ+ community were excluded from a movie about the LGBTQ+ community. And it’s a good thing that the movie was torn apart for its errors. But most students and most administrators agreed that, rather than cancel the screening at CC, it should be accompanied by a discussion of the ways in which the movie (not a documentary) deviated from reality. If CC were to judge the Stonewall case solely on the grounds of effect, the movie would have been banned immediately. But the administration recognized that this would be irrational, so they showed the movie anyway. Did the administration invalidate the feelings of the students who wanted the film banned? Perhaps, but when emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated, the emotions of the affected cannot be trusted over examining what was actually said.
The policy of judging by effect has become so widespread that professors have become wary of stating their actual opinions on what they are teaching in the classroom. One professor, writing for Vox last year, described self-censoring himself and even changing his curriculum: “I comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad.” The sentiments of his article, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” was echoed by professors all over the country.
But perhaps we should place more weight on effect. People often try to dispel concern about the damage done by claiming that it’s irrational to perceive ostensibly minor acts as harmful. But no one can objectively determine whether these kinds of things hurt on a deep and fundamental level. Baheya Malaty, FemCo co-chair, explains, “I think the wonderful thing about my emotions and my safety is that I get to define when they’re being violated. It’s so absurd of someone to say, ‘Oh, that’s not really a threat’…Fundamentally, that has been used historically as a tool to silence oppressed populations.”
The point here is not to demonize anyone who has ever accidentally said something offensive. The point is that white students can never fully comprehend what it’s like to be a person of color at CC, or anywhere, for that matter. It would grossly misunderstand the history of oppression, therefore, to write it off as an emotionally distraught overreaction when students try to address issues that really do affect them. This doesn’t mean that we should automatically side with the victim when it comes to actual adjudication—the perpetrator, of course, has their own subjective experience that we can never know either. But the concerns of victims of cases that involve systematic oppression, such as hate speech, are too often automatically sidelined, and we have to work to correct this unfounded presumption.
This brings me to another, perhaps even more important, dimension of the problem: as Malaty said, hate speech doesn’t only demean the dignity of oppressed people. It silences them. You cannot speak from a place where you will be considered, respected, and understood when your voice is repeatedly diminished due to the color of your skin. As much as we would love to believe that we are nobly upholding the principle of free speech when we protect expression that we despise, perhaps we are really upholding an oppressive power dynamic. Giving people the OK to engage in speech that demeans others restricts the speech of the victims.
In this sense, we must think less about “speech” and more about dialogue. “A dialogue,” Buckley says, “requires an investment of your entire self. And the goal there is really for us to be able to see and maintain our human dignity throughout a process of communication…building a relationship and having some understanding.”
The dialogue Buckley envisions requires an even greater standard than the college has yet attained: a campus environment where everyone is treated with respect, and where this racism wouldn’t be present in the first place. The administration’s response to the Yik Yaks indicates that CC has acknowledged systematic oppression and wants to eliminate it on campus. But by no means does that solve the problem. Many marginalized students still don’t think the college is doing nearly enough to truly create an inclusive and safe space.
You’re certainly right that CC is aiming to make a fully inclusive space. But if they go about that by severely punishing hate speech, the college not only risks being unfair, but also risks moralizing to students. If CC focuses so strictly on creating an inclusive space that it rejects all non-inclusive ideas, then the college has betrayed one of the core tenets of a liberal arts education: teaching students to think for themselves. Professor David Hendrickson says, “There’s a real issue about forcing people to take courses in Race and Ethnic Studies, forcing upon them a kind of re-education. Colorado College students are adults. They have their own minds, their own opinions. They are entitled to those opinions. No one should be in the business of saying, ‘you must believe this.’”
For a long time, many colleges (CC included) were decidedly in the business of saying, “You must believe this.” Religious affiliations and general moralizing used to be the norm until the 1960s, when the relationship between students and colleges changed for the better. In public universities, courts started affording constitutional protections to students and in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) became outmoded. This shift was closely tied to the civil rights movement—as students voiced “radical” opinions about racial equality, they began to demand freedom from the college’s outdated constraints, asserting their right to speak and protest. Now CC has reversed all of that, and begun acting like a parent again.
This squeamishness that many people share at the prospect of the college having some kind of unified mission of thought is not surprising. In fact, this whole Yik Yak debacle is evidence of a deeper epistemological disconnect that is plaguing liberal arts institutions across the nation. It is concerned with the ultimate purpose and character of the college. Is it a pseudo-parent that can regulate its children’s activities at will? A playground for students of privilege who expect to enter this country’s highest social strata through a liberal arts education? A bastion of new ideas that challenges and deconstructs outmoded norms?
“Moralizing” is the more derogatory term for another basic tenet of the liberal arts: the college should shape its students’ characters. Introducing students to critical thinking about outdated and violent ideologies like racism is a vital part of students’ liberal arts education. Permitting them to be racist is certainly not. We certainly don’t all have to think the exact same way to agree to that. To hold steadfastly to a preexisting conviction is to reject the purpose of an education. CC should shape you as a person and make you better. To do that, it has to have some sort of normative conception about what “better” means, even if that’s as simple as not being racist.
When colleges like CC became secular, this ethic was somewhat lost, and with it we lost a sense of common purpose and civic goals. I think now we can reestablish something like it with the principles of diversity and inclusivity as our baseline. It wouldn’t be very respectful of either of these principles, though, for the elites of the college to philosophize on high about the ideal student and subsequently force students to comply to a norm they had no part in establishing. If the college is to embrace diversity as a guiding principle, students should understand what that means and be crucially involved in the dialogue around it.
In an email sent to the college soon after the Yik Yak posts, President Jill Tiefenthaler wrote, “Hate speech under the veil of anonymity is the work of cowards and bigots, who have no interest in community.” For many, this was much-appreciated evidence that the college had a strong stance on the issue. But we think this sentiment is flawed no matter where your sympathies lie. We can and should point out bigoted speech, but without accusing people of being irreparably bigoted. The ethic that essentializes people down to the worst thing they’ve ever done is, as Ethan pointed out before, the same one that’s used to lock people up in the prison system without acknowledging their potential to grow and change.
There are other ways to address hate speech without using strictly punitive measures. The college should take note of the principles of restorative justice, which has perpetrators and victims meeting together and having a dialogue facilitated by members of the community. Restorative justice has a remarkably high success rate in other arenas. Instead of focusing on punishing someone for what they’ve done wrong, restorative justice attempts to bring both parties together to restore the damage done. For instance, Pryor and Henriques might have to take certain courses in Race and Ethnic Studies, go to trainings or educative seminars, make a public apology, etc. Respecting students’ ability to understand how they have a hurt a person or group of people, and want to change, is an essential part of a dialogical community.
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Right now, Colorado College has a broad set of rules that determine what we can and cannot say. The rules are dispersed throughout the Pathfinder, the document that guides student behavior. You couldn’t be blamed for not knowing what the rules are—in fact, no one really knows. In a case of expression, you would probably be punished under the “Abusive Behavior” section of the Pathfinder (as Pryor and Henriques were). The section reads:
The college prohibits abusive behavior, which is any act that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or group, or which destroys or removes public or private property, or which produces ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other similar result.
It’s a strong statement, but the language here is so ambiguous that it’s effectively meaningless and gives administrators license to censor virtually whatever they want. Who’s to say exactly what constitutes “embarrassment?” And a “similar result” includes even speech that is not so offensive as to fall into any of the categories that are described.
At CC, Deans Rochelle Mason and Cesar Cervantes interpreted “black women matter, they’re just not hot” as abusive, disruptive, and grounds for suspension. Both of these administrators are well-meaning people who have extensive experience thinking about the Pathfinder and applying its rules. As Mason explained, “Our policies are typically written to be open ended so that as an institution we’re continually using discretion and balancing the needs of that individual student against the needs of the community.” But delegating the power to decide what CC students can and cannot say to two administrators only reflects one side of the college, one that might be more concerned with the institution’s financial concerns and reputation than those of the college community. If anything is clear it’s that the reasoning is nuanced and complicated on both sides of the debate, and that issues of free expression are far too important to be administered with a process that borders so close to authoritarian rule.
Instead, issues of free expression should be addressed by a group of people more representative of CC as a whole. Administrators, faculty, and students should come together to change the Pathfinder so that it contains a policy that specifically addresses expression. When it again comes time to address speech that might violate these principles, justice should be dealt by a similarly diverse group of people. We need all these groups represented to provide a check on a single perspective. Hopefully, a committee of various community members will transcend their own perspectives by engaging in open, productive discussion—which is exactly what we are trying to protect. Yes, this will be an incredibly laborious task. In this committee, it is possible nearly everyone will disagree, but at least everyone will have a voice. The difficulty of the process is a small price to pay for the integrity of democratic principles.
Ultimately, what’s harming the college most is not the disagreement among students and among faculty, or the rift between the right to dignity and the right to expression. It’s the all too common refusal to engage with those who disagree. What happened on Yik Yak last semester has made us question not only what we can say, but who we are and what we stand for—perhaps we’re not the ideal community where everyone gets along, as we’d like the outside world to believe. As Buckley puts it, “There is the college’s public persona and then there are moments that reveal our character.” CC doesn’t yet embody all of the values it says it does, and in many cases we are confused as to what those values even are, or what they mean. But all hope is not lost. We have to engage with these issues as a community—because they are important, because CC matters to us all. There is a version of CC in which we maintain both our central freedoms and our dignities. The path to that CC is not in the hands of any one group—it is up to all of us.
We would like to thank the following students, professors, and administrators we contacted who generously gave their time to talk with us about the issue. Some are quoted in this article, and all influenced our thought and introduced us to new perspectives and arguments on both sides: Jacob Walden, Dennis McEnnerney, David Hendrickson, Jill Tiefenthaler, Baheya Malaty, Breana Taylor, Rochelle Mason, and Paul Buckley.