Colorado College Press Strategy: Parse Words, Ignore Substance
April 29, 2008
As we've mentioned in this space before, Colorado College President Richard Celeste is the former Governor of Ohio. And after reading the following exchange between Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, and Colorado College Media Relations Director Jane Turnis, it's obvious Celeste has taught his staff some old political tricks—like parsing opposing arguments to suit your tastes, substance be damned.
Let's examine the exchange.
Turnis first wrote FIRE late yesterday evening, deeming yesterday's press release—which stated that "Colorado College has denied student Chris Robinson's appeal of its finding that he and another student violated the school's ‘violence' policy" —factually inaccurate.
From: "Jane Turnis"
Date: Mon, 28 Apr 2008 19:58:37
To: Adam Kissel
Subject: Press release is incorrect
Your press release today is incorrect. Chris Robinson's request for an appeal was granted. A new committee heard the case and upheld the previous decision.
Media Relations Director
14 E. Cache La Poudre Street
Colorado Springs, CO 80903
Adam wrote back soon after, pointing out that Turnis was wrong because the "new committee" she referred to—i.e., the appeals panel—didn't have the authority to uphold the previous decision. Instead, Colorado College's student handbook, The Pathfinder, clearly states that "[a]ppeal panels issue a finding in relation to the appeal and make a recommendation to the vice-president for student life/dean of students, who retains sole authority regarding appeal decisions."
From: Adam Kissel [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, April 28, 2008 9:21 PM
To: Jane Turnis
Subject: Re: Press release is incorrect
The Pathfinder shows that the VP/DOS makes the final decision and the appeals committee opinion is merely advisory.
Thus, FIRE's statement that "[Student Chris] Robinson appealed [Vice President for Student Life/Dean of Students Michael] Edmonds's decision, but the final judge of the appeal was Edmonds himself," was correct. Robinson appealed the initial verdict handed down by Edmonds on March 25, which found him guilty of "violating the student code of conduct policy on violence." On April 11, in a letter from Edmonds, Robinson learned that his appeal was denied and the original verdict was upheld. Simple enough.
This morning, however, Turnis responded again, parsing words:
From: "Jane Turnis"
Date: Tue, 29 Apr 2008 10:26:35
To: Adam Kissel
Subject: RE: Press release is incorrect
Your press release says Chris Robinson's appeal was denied. That is
incorrect. He was GRANTED the opportunity to appeal, and his appeal was
heard. If his appeal was denied, his case would not have been heard again.
As I said before, the appeals committee upheld the previous decision. Vice
President and Dean of Students Edmonds accepted the appeals committee's finding.
Talk about technicalities. What Turnis is saying here is that because Robinson was allowed to appeal at all, FIRE is incorrect to say that his appeal was "denied," as we do in the first sentence of our press release. But that's parsing to the point of silliness: Robinson's appeal was indeed denied, insofar as his request to have the guilty finding overturned was not granted. Another way of saying it would be to state that Robinson's appeal "failed," which is exactly how FIRE describes the outcome in the second sentence of the seventh paragraph: "Robinson was notified on April 21, in a letter dated April 11, that his appeal had failed and that the finding would remain in his student file until he graduates." [Emphasis mine.] Presumably, if we had used "failed" instead of "denied" in our opening sentence, Turnis' predilection for hyper-precision would have been satisfied, but somehow I doubt that.
At any rate, as Turnis must know, whether Robinson's appeal was "denied" or simply "failed" is a distinction with little practical difference, as far as Colorado College's commitment to free expression is concerned. Whether "denied" or "failed," the facts remain indisputable:
- Robinson is still guilty of "violating the student code of conduct policy on violence" for publishing a clear parody;
- The fate of Robinson's appeal was ultimately decided by Edmonds, the same administrator responsible for the initial verdict;
- Colorado College has broken its own extensive promises of free expression on campus, to their lasting shame.
The bottom line? All the spin Turnis' office can muster won't be able to remove the stain on Colorado College's reputation if Robinson's verdict is allowed to stand.