FIRE Again Urges Colorado College President to Demonstrate His Recommitment to Free Speech
July 31, 2008
FIRE gave Colorado College President Richard Celeste another opportunity yesterday to restore the tarnished image of his school by once again calling on him to remove any disciplinary letters from the files of two CC students.
Loyal Torch readers will remember this amazing case in which students were punished simply for posting satirical flyers. Back in February, a group calling themselves "the Feminist and Gender Studies Interns" posted a flyer around campus entitled "The Monthly Rag." The flyer contained references to an upcoming lecture by "world-famous prostitute and porn star" Annie Sprinkle and male castration. In response, two CC students posted their own response, entitled, "The Monthly Bag." Clearly a satire of the "Monthly Rag," the flyer contained, among other things, references to the range of a sniper rifle, facts about battered men, and instructions for a sexual position.
FIRE's second letter to Celeste was sent to 65 persons, including senior college administrators, members of the Colorado College Board of Trustees, presidents of area colleges, and members of the local media. As the letter points out, although Celeste never responded to FIRE directly, he has responded indirectly through a number of blog postings and an article in the student newspaper. FIRE's letter takes Celeste to task for the level of spin in these communications and his embarrassing stubbornness.
One glaring problem with which FIRE takes issue is Celeste's rationale for taking action against the students. His first communication about the flyers was made in an all-campus email in which he conveyed opposition to the flyers and their content. It was not until later that his supposed concern for campus safety—an obvious smokescreen for his original intentions—was presented as a retroactive rationale for his stunningly inappropriate behavior. As Robert writes in yesterday's letter:
Does anyone on campus believe that your denunciation of the "demeaning content" of the "Monthly Bag" in a campus-wide email on February 28—calling it "categorically unacceptable in this community"—has improved rather than deeply depressed the state of free speech on campus? Does anyone believe that the entire case has been about a reference to a sniper rifle in the context of a completely recognizable parody, after you wrote to the entire campus of your "disgust" and urged the campus community to "find appropriate avenues to discuss how gender impacts our experience of the world and one another"?
FIRE's letter goes on to repeat its concern that the Colorado College Board of Trustees was misinformed about the case. While one trustee incorrectly asserted that the students were allowed to continue publishing their flyers, it was actually another group of anonymous students who published a second edition of "The Monthly Bag" in an apparent attempt to show their support for Chris Robinson and the other original author.
Central to the letter, however, was FIRE's demand that Celeste remove any disciplinary letters from their student files. As the letter states:
First, your blog post notes that the appellate conduct committee said that the students "should not be punished or sanctioned," and you have argued likewise that the students have not been sanctioned or punished. The 2007-2008 Pathfinder, however, makes clear that having a disciplinary letter put in one's file is a sanction.
Robert asks, "How can this be?" The answer, of course, is that it can't, and Celeste knows it. And therein lies the heart of this issue. Ignoring all the spin from the college and miles of doublespeak, the central issue here is that Celeste's behavior from the start has been totally unbecoming of a college president. His public reaction to a simple parody was not only contrary to the spirit of unfettered discourse which should be the cornerstone of any institution of higher learning, but it was also completely unprofessional. By signaling to the campus his feelings about the parody and then attempting (poorly) to obfuscate the central issue, he irreversibly muddied the waters, making it unlikely that there would be any chance that the students involved would be treated fairly—and, of course, they weren't.
That said, as FIRE has repeated several times, the remedy to this situation is very simple. All Colorado College needs to do is remove the disciplinary letters from the files of the two students. Such an action would speak volumes to the large number of people around the country who have been intently following this case. If you would like to join FIRE in encouraging President Celeste to do the right thing, he can be reached at 719-389-6700 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.