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Re: “The truth about 'free speech'

In the Independent of two weeks ago, Professor William Davis criticizes those who have protested the disciplinary proceedings against two Colorado College students over their role in the production of a satirical flier. It was much ado about nothing, he insists, for the young men were not punished. He writes: having someone disagree with you, or tell you to shut up, or tell you that what you said was wrong even if that someone is a person of authority in your community does not constitute a violation of free speech. I believe that basic principles of free expression were violated in the case. The first point laid down in the disciplinary hearing against the two students was that CC reserves the right to suspend or expel a student for violating the schools code of conduct, as the students were alleged to have done in multiple ways by putting up their poster. Davis seems to assume that a confidential student disciplinary hearing with the threat of punishment attached is just another little foray in the free play of ideas. That is not so. It is a qualitatively different act. The Monthly Rag, a publication by interns in the Feminist and Gender Studies program, was the object of the accused students parody and critique. It has enjoyed a three year run in CC bathrooms. The first appearance of direct criticism from some dudes got the authors hauled into a three-hour disciplinary hearing in which they were made to answer allegations from four complainants and questions from ten committee members, mostly students. The matters at issue were either deeply personal or essentially political. In my view, shared by many others at the college, a confidential disciplinary hearing is the worst possible venue for an argument over these contested matters. The two accused students were not the only ones injured by the process. It should not have happened. The students, though found guilty of violating the student code of conduct, were subjected to no further punishment. One of them, just shy of a 4.0 grade point average, subsequently received a scholarship awarded by the presidents office, a proper but still magnanimous act. There were, however, disturbing elements in the Deans letter announcing the guilty verdict. The Dean absolved the students of any intention to threaten violence, but found a violation because other members of the CC community perceived a threat in their poster. That is a far cry from the standard that U.S. courts have adopted in their interpretations of the boundaries of protected speech. Those of us who protested the Deans decision believe that it is based on a faulty rationale and sets a bad precedent. It is heartening that President Dick Celeste has pledged to review disciplinary procedures to ensure fairness in the future, but to clear the air he ought also to overturn the guilty verdict. The administrations handling of the case has left the impression that the colleges commitment to student rights of free expression is tepid and conditional. It should be robust. Readers of the Independent can review the posters for themselves and wade further into the controversy at the archive set up by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, at http://thefire.org/index.php/case/759.html. Sincerely, David Hendrickson. The writer directs the journalism minor and is the Robert J. Fox Distinguished Service Professor at Colorado College. His website is www.davidhendrickson.org.

Posted by dhendrickson on 05/17/2008 at 1:01 PM

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