How the Right Is Using CSU’s Language Guide to Create Free-Speech Controversy

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Last week, a slew of right-wing (and some more mainstream) media outlets seized suddenly on a year-old draft of a Colorado State University’s “Inclusive Language Guide” as their newest target for derision of the intellectual left’s purported “language policing” and free-speech violations.

Some went so far as to accuse CSU of banning the word “America,” since the leaked draft suggested that using the term “Americans” to describe only people from the U.S. erased other nations and cultures within the continent.

In the aftermath, CSU Chancellor Tony Frank issued a statement affirming CSU’s support of the First Amendment, clarifying that the released document was a draft, and emphasizing that all of the terms included are just suggestions of words to avoid for those who choose to follow them, not outright bans. “Statements being made on social media and in online publications are untrue and are based on an outdated document. The CSU System, Colorado State University, and all of the CSU campuses do not place prohibitions on language,” Frank wrote. (The most updated version of CSU’s inclusive language guide is attached at the bottom of this page.)

Frank’s statement continued, “The group of people working on a preliminary draft considered encouraging people to use ‘U.S. citizen’ instead of American when referring to people from the U.S., as there are several geographic regions in the Americas. They decided against this on their own and deleted that from the draft before it was ever finalized or circulated to campus. Why that information is being circulated now as current or factual is unclear.”

The document got sudden media attention because of Isabel Brown, a recent CSU graduate who now works for Prager U, a nonprofit founded by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager. Prager U sent out a press release last week linking to one of its characteristic videos, which featured Brown describing what it was like “living under one of these guides,” as the press release put it.

“It may surprise you that colleges and universities are not only limiting speech by choosing who can speak on campus but by limiting what students should and should not say. Countless higher-ed institutions have adopted inclusive language guides, in an effort to create an inclusive community for everyone — everyone who thinks the same way, that is,” Brown begins in the video.

Brown also discussed the document at length earlier this month, in an address to the Western Conservative Summit as its Under 30 speech contest winner. She mocked the document’s recommendations against saying common phrases, such as “long time no see” (which, the guide says, is offensive to Asian students) “freshman” (since the term “man” excludes other genders), “handicap parking” (the guide says the term “generalizes the population”), and “crazy” (which implies that people experiencing mental health challenges are not "normal"). Since last week, the guide has been discussed on Fox & Friends, profiled in the National Review and on the Daily Wire, and re-posted by conservative personalities like Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

Brown, who describes herself as an “outspoken conservative” at CSU, where she was involved in far-right campus organizing group Turning Point USA, says that even though the guide is not an outright ban, it threatens free speech on campus. She says she first learned of the document when it was linked in an editorial in CSU’s student newspaper, the Collegian, last fall. According to Brown, the version that included the term “American” was characterized as a “living document,” not an unofficial draft.

“This guide really creates and cultivates a culture that really stymies particular speech, particularly conservative speech,” Brown says. “Ultimately, any guide that tells you what you should and shouldn’t say beyond the laws, I think, is a slippery slope.”

That's the same argument Fox & Friends commentators used in their discussion last weekend: The more the academic left starts to "revise and rewrite the language that we've all grown up with," the more that language will take hold in our minds, to the point where it "goes up to policy." Before we know it, they warn, not only will our language be inclusive, but our actual laws will, too. Or, they wonder, maybe gender-inclusive language demands will go so far that we'll no longer be able to use the word "Manhattan." Simultaneous ridicule and melodrama ensue.

Brown says that efforts like the inclusive-language guide create a culture of fear on campus that, she believes, could devolve into more serious free-speech violations. She says that in her role as a tour guide, she was officially reprimanded for using the term “you guys,” told that it is not gender-inclusive. “After that, I was so nervous to say the wrong thing every single time I did a tour,” Brown says.

One of Brown’s main contentions is that many of the phrases in the document aren’t commonly considered offensive. The document in question includes eight pages of words and phrases to avoid, some because their historical origins can be traced to violent and oppressive events. For example, the guide explains, the term "Hip hip hooray!" stems from Nazi German use of "hep hep" as a rallying cry to hunt Jews. Should that chill us to the point of limiting this cheesy expression from our vocabularies, even though most people don't know its dark history? Brown thinks it's better to let it be unless people are already offended by it.

“To suggest that everyone everywhere on campus is offended by the same words, I think, is naive. If someone’s offended by something, just say so. We don’t need to preemptively be telling students to self-censor,” Brown says.

On the other hand, some of the recommendations in the guide have long been outdated or widely considered incorrect: for example, “dumb” or “mute” to refer to a person with speech impediments; “colored” to refer to a person of color; or “transgendered” instead of “transgender.”

A spokesperson from CSU affirmed that the document was intended as an educational resource for campus communications, student organizations and other staff, not to stymie debate, but said that campus officials involved in drafting the document could not comment for this story. In an email to the student body, President Joyce McConnell wrote that she applauded “all who seek to select their words thoughtfully,” and that the guide is “absolutely consistent with our commitment to the free exchange of ideas.”

Meanwhile, Brown says she'll keep referencing the guide and campaigning against what she sees as colleges' suppression of free speech. Her latest video is an interview with a UC Berkeley student, purportedly targeted by the left because she refused to "support transgenderism" because she is Christian.