Students, does Adams State College illegally restrict your rights to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience?
Absolutely, says the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
According to its website, FIRE’s mission is to “sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” Much of its work involves flushing out policies that unconstitutionally impinge on “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.”
Colleges whose policies do not “seriously imperil” these basic rights receive a “green light” rating from the organization.
Colleges with “some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech” receive a “yellow light.” Colleges get a “red light” if they have “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
ASC gets a red light.
We’re not alone. Western State, University of Northern Colorado, Fort Lewis, Mesa State, and Colorado College also have a red light rating.
The University of Colorado, Colorado State, School of Mines, and Denver University have all been given a yellow light.
None of the Colorado colleges rated by FIRE has a green light rating. (Regis is not rated.)
Which ASC policies have prompted FIRE’s disapproval? One is found on page 19 of the Standards of Residence and Judicial Handbook. It restricts what students can display in their dorm windows:
Should window decorations be considered inappropriate, the resident will be requested to remove them. Controversial or antagonistic materials might draw personal confrontations from others within the community who may be offended by the content. The placing of inappropriate or offensive material including, but not limited to, nudity or extremely violent items on the outside of a room door may result in immediate removal. Community standards are stated as decorations or displayed material one would find in the community of Alamosa.
I am not a lawyer, but I think I can guess why the lawyers at FIRE find this policy objectionable.
First, it’s too vague. A policy should be specific enough to give you a clear idea of what is and is not permitted, and this policy doesn’t do that. I mean, what’s “inappropriate”?
Second, the policy is far too restrictive. I can think of plenty of decorations one would not find in the community of Alamosa but that would nonetheless be constitutionally protected speech.
Also problematic are the ASC Affirmations, which FIRE apparently deems an unconstitutional restriction of “sanctity of conscience.”
Here’s the relevant language:
As a student at ASC, you are joining a community of learners and scholars. Choosing to join this community involved a conscious commitment to uphold this community’s values and expectations. These standards ensure that all members of our community have an optimal environment in which to teach, to learn and to benefit from the ASC experience. … I will relate to others with civility and respect.
I’ve never much liked the ASC Affirmations ceremony. The problem is not the affirmations themselves, which I personally find unobjectionable, but the pressure new students are put under to recite them.
And I can certainly understand FIRE’s objections to them. Choosing to attend ASC does not necessarily commit you to upholding its values.
Sure, I would like to think that all ASC students believe in the basic values of, say, racial and gender equality. But you don’t have to believe in or uphold those values to go to school here. Racists and sexists have just as much right to attend ASC as the rest of us.
Similarly, I think it’s generally a good idea to “relate to others with civility and respect.” On the other hand, there are certain forms of expression, such as parody and satire, that are decidedly disrespectful but are nonetheless constitutionally protected speech.
Think George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Margaret Cho.
We have a constitutional right to be disrespectful, and the Affirmations basically predicate membership in the ASC community on the surrender of that right.
I’ve asked FIRE to elaborate on our red light rating, but it’s now press time and their spokeswoman has not gotten back to me. Apparently she just had a baby.
I’ve been assured that I will hear back from her soon, however, and I hope to report what she has to say next week.
I also hope to get responses from someone in the Office of Student Affairs and report what they have to say as well.