President Donald Trump may have lost his re-election bid, but educational culture wars supercharged by his ascendancy continue. Witness a new attack by a major national conservative advocacy organization on the University of Colorado Denver over its campus email policy — even though there's no evidence that it's been abused.
"We haven't yet heard of specific examples of this policy being applied at CU Denver," acknowledges Laura Beltz, senior program officer in the policy reform office of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). "But whether or not it's currently being applied to the letter, it poses a threat by lingering on the books."
That may not be the case for much longer. CU Denver doesn't confirm that FIRE's complaints have prompted it to revisit its email policy, which "bans offensive or inappropriate comments about 'political beliefs,'" according to Beltz. (The policy was drafted in 2012 and updated this past March.) But in a statement provided to Westword, the university reveals that it's reviewing the rules, and changes may be in the offing.
"Free speech is a vital part of CU Denver’s mission," the response stresses. "We strongly support and encourage students, faculty and staff to express their views, debate issues, get involved and make change. The policy was primarily geared toward faculty and staff use. We plan to update this policy and review the policy language created by our partner CU campuses."
FIRE's gripes about CU Denver don't apply to the entire University of Colorado system. In fact, the organization has given CU Boulder, along with two other sister institutions, a "green light" rating for its speech policies (even though a historian at the flagship university recently declared Trump to be the worst president in American history).
So far, FIRE has reserved its ire for CU Denver's policy, pointing to wording that forbids students from sending or storing emails that are deemed "inappropriate" or "considered offensive by an ordinary member of the public." That's a slippery slope, according to FIRE, which in August objected to an incident at New Jersey's Stockton University, where a student allegedly faced disciplinary charges over a political Facebook post and the use of a Trump photo as a Zoom background image that made some students feel "offended, disrespected and taunted."
CU Denver's policy "could certainly be applied against conservative students," Beltz says, then suggests that its application could transcend ideology. "Some administrators may find something like a thin blue line flag offensive, while others might find Black Lives Matter activism offensive — revealing the problem with such a subjective standard," she notes.
"Data shows conservative students are more concerned than others about expressing their opinions on campus," she continues. "In FIRE's recent free-speech survey of college campuses, 60 percent of students reported feeling they could not express an opinion because of how students, a professor or their administration would respond, and that percentage is highest among 'strong Republicans,' at 73 percent. With conservative students already feeling they can't express their opinions on campus, a policy like this, that threatens to punish students for sharing subjectively offensive content, is likely to increase that chilling effect."
In her view, "A policy like this, banning emails that may be considered 'sexually explicit, racist, defamatory, abusive, obscene, derogatory, discriminatory, threatening, harassing or otherwise offensive' does seem to be aimed at combating hurtful, 'politically incorrect' speech, but under the First Amendment, speech can't be limited by the government merely because someone has found it hurtful or offensive. In the recent Supreme Court case Matal v. Tam, the court struck down the Lanham Act's ban on trademarks that 'may disparage' others, explaining that such a broad ban might be aimed at curbing hateful language, but could be applied to restrict anything disfavored by the government. As Justice Kennedy pointed out, such a ban would disallow the registration of marks like '‘Down with racists,' 'Down with sexists,' 'Down with homophobes' or 'Slavery is an evil institution.'"
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