University of Colorado Considers Overhauling Policies to Support Free Speech

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January 19, 2018

The University of Colorado is considering changes to its speech codes to encourage students and staff to engage with potentially "wrong or insensitive" speech rather than suppress it.

In the wake of the University of Chicago's emphatic declaration in support of free expression, and amid contentious times for free speech on college campuses, the University or Colorado, or CU, is reassessing its speech policies, the Daily Camera reported.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that over 90% of colleges in America regulate speech in some manner, with one-third possessing restricting restrictive speech policies.

In response to widespread suppression of free speech on college campuses, the University of Chicago made headlines in August 2016 when Dean of Students John Ellison wrote to incoming students to clarify already existing policies, telling them the university did not support trigger warnings, controversial speakers, or safe spaces. In response to the statement, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff told the New York Times its declaration was "clearer and more direct" than any other university policy.

FIRE has further encouraged schools to prioritize protecting speech with a content-neutral statement, like the University of Chicago's.

CU regents, including two Republicans who are spearheading the effort with a university official, agreed the university's policies on free speech, if agreed upon, would be "more detailed and stronger" than the University of Chicago's.

A draft proposal of CU's policy reads: "Speech related to political, academic, artistic, and social concern serve vital purposes, both in society and within the university itself. Speech related to these topics is within the boundaries of free expression, even when others construe that speech as wrong or insensitive. The proper response to ideas that members of the university community find offensive or unwarranted is to challenge those ideas through the exercise of reason and debate, rather than attempt to interfere with or suppress them."

It clarifies that free expression does not include speech that is "a true threat, fraudulent, harassing, obscene, defamatory, or otherwise unlawful."

The debate over free speech, and its suppression, on campuses has drawn particular attention following visits from conservative, right-wing, or so-deemed controversial speakers.  A litany of figures ranging from Charles Murray to Ann Coulter to Ben Shapiro have drawn protests, violence, or been forced to cancel events at universities across the nation.

One routinely controversial speaker is Milo Yiannopolous, whose appearance at UCLA was cancelled earlier this year due to concerns over public safety. Yiannopolous made an appearance at University of Colorado Boulder in the same month, and was met with large crowds of protesters. In the Boulder case, police officers dressed in riot gear formed a line in front of the protesters so that Milo was able to make his appearance.

Heidi Ganahl, Republican at large on the Board of Regents, told the Daily Camera that the desire for new rules concerning free speech on campus came from her conversations with students and faculty.

"This would be giving a voice to people who don't feel they have a voice," she said. "I am their voice now. I think this would send a very encouraging and strong message for them."