Balancing Act

As incidents of bias and hate rise across the country, Colorado State and other campuses are walking a tightrope. The University is working to uphold First Amendment rights fundamental to democracy, academic freedom, and its legal mandates as a public institution. It also is working to safeguard and support students threatened by intolerance. Stressing its core value of inclusivity, the University has urged its community to unite against hate.

Illustration by Dave Cutler depicting First Amendment, person walking on tightrope

Illustration by Dave Cutler

The academic year began last August with an ominous sign. Just after the deadly Unite the Right rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., an African American resident assistant at Colorado State found a noose made with crepe paper hanging in the stairwell of a University dormitory. The reaction from students was swift: Many felt confused, threatened, and angry.

And so, even before classes began, Colorado State joined colleges and universities nationwide in managing the thorny matters of freedom of speech and student safety during the 2017-2018 academic year. “It’s the No. 1 topic of the year,” Kevin Kruger, president of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said in Campus Safety magazine.

The societal context is instructive: Federal investigations data reveal a spike in reported hate-based incidents in communities nationwide. Meantime, a new crop of provocateurs is brazenly testing the ability of colleges and universities to assure freedom of speech. Their voices are amplified by social media, their audiences extend far beyond any campus venue, and they are trailed by extremist activists on both the left and right. Even mildly controversial speakers can present a volatile milieu of protests and counter-protests – requiring campus communications and safety plans, and the budgets to execute them.

Colorado State President Tony Frank focused on related issues during his 2017 Fall Address, effectively launching an ongoing initiative to protect First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly while also supporting those hurt by racist, anti-Semitic, and hate-based invective that seeks to divide society and to isolate, intimidate, and frighten people, especially those from historically marginalized groups.

These issues are not unique to Colorado State, nor are they historically unprecedented. Yet the University’s contemporary approach stands out for its candor and its refusal to pit one civil right against another. At a campus symposium called “Think Tank: Free Speech Summit,” Frank rejected any choice between rights to free speech and a safe learning environment. Both are essential. “As a University, we can also exercise our right to free speech by standing with students against hate speech,” he said.

That was his approach in an e-mail message to the University community on Feb. 1. Frank described fliers posted on campus by the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist group whose propaganda appeared ahead of an invited talk by a more mainstream conservative speaker. He wrote, in part:

This University strongly respects the Constitution and the First Amendment, and the right of even repugnant viewpoints to be spoken and debated in the public space. But Colorado State University also has the right to publicly assert what it values and stands for – so I’d like to take this opportunity to do that here.

The TWP goes by various names online, but let me keep this simple: a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi. And the members of the Traditionalist Worker Party are unapologetic Nazis who advocate murdering all those who don’t align with their worldview. They don’t even pretend to keep this a secret. They put it out there unashamedly for anyone who wants to read it.

It’s easy, for those of us from a certain privileged vantage point, to dismiss this sort of extremist rhetoric as pathetic, ignorant, unworthy of our attention. But historical precedent is clear as to why that’s a mistake.

The decision of its leaders to begin broadly communicating incidents of bias and hate also sets Colorado State apart. Such openness risks the impression that problems are worse at CSU than they are elsewhere; they aren’t, as academic symposia, independent watchdogs, and media accounts confirm. Campus leaders took the risk, hoping that airing hate-motivated incidents would be an effective step to confronting them. By year’s end, 16 bias and hate-related incidents – ranging from graffiti to verbal harassment – were reported on campus and described in e-mail alerts from administrators and the
CSU Public Safety Team.

In response, the President’s Multicultural Student Advisory Committee led a springtime solidarity walk and community gathering to inspire learning and action. Called CSUnite, the rally drew several thousand participants proclaiming the campus as “No Place 4 H8” and reinforcing the University’s Principles of Community – inclusion, respect, and social justice, among them.

“Be strong, CSU,” Frank urged the crowd. “Be loud. Take care of each other.”

Published in the Fall 2018 issue of Colorado State Magazine