CSU puts efforts towards free speech education as campus awaits controversial speakers

Erin Douglas

Colorado State University has declared its position: It will defend student safety and its students’ rights to say whatever they want. The two values could be in opposition on Friday. 

Ahead of Charlie Kirk’s talk on campus Friday, the University released a new website dedicated to explaining the First Amendment of the Constitution in a campus context. Administrators also plan to hold free speech forums throughout the spring.

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Charlie Kirk speaks into microphone
Charlie Kirk speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore – licensed under creative commons)

Charlie Kirk founded Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit with an aim to organize students on college campuses to promote conservative policies—primarily limited government in free markets.

While conveniently timed ahead of Kirk’s speech, CSU Provost Rick Miranda said the idea to provide more education about free speech started in the fall semester of 2016. At the time, a national conversation about free speech on college campuses was coinciding with the presidential election. On CSU’s campus, several students were exercising that right—notably, with free speech walls and a rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and immigrants.

“What happened in Charlottesville, what happened in Fergusson, these big national events—they indicated that there’s a lot of tension in the United States at this point in history, and those tensions are a little bit more likely to reveal themselves on college campuses,” said Miranda, who has helped lead the efforts to educate campus, along with CSU President Tony Frank and much of his cabinet. 

About a year following the administration’s conversation of how to best address the topic, the University’s leadership retreat featured a free speech session that Miranda said was one of the liveliest he’d ever seen, with deans and administrators participating heavily in the discussion. As a result, another session was held this past December, called “The First Amendment on Campus: What Faculty & Staff Need to Know,” this time open to the public. A third will be held Feb. 14, and a fourth on March 1. 

While the website and forums were planned in advance, Miranda said CSU did work hard in the past month to make sure the resources were available as quickly as possible for the spring semester.

“We know there may be other controversial speakers (beyond Charlie Kirk) in February and March,” Miranda said. “So, we did sort of put our foot on the gas a little bit to make sure that this website was available for the second semester.” 

We’re in a moment when there’s a lot of tension between two competing values: the value of free speech and the value of our abhorrence of hate speech. These are in conflict … It’s easy to decide between right and wrong, it’s a lot less easy to decide between right and right.” -Rick Miranda, CSU Provost

However, the question of how the University will balance a legal obligation to accommodate first amendment rights with an increasingly hostile political environment remains unanswered.

“We’re in a moment when there’s a lot of tension between two competing values: the value of free speech and the value of our abhorrence of hate speech,” Miranda said. “These are in conflict … It’s easy to decide between right and wrong, it’s a lot less easy to decide between right and right.”

Miranda said the primary concern is the safety of the community. If an event becomes unsafe, the University may cancel an event if security cannot accommodate the level of risk or move the speaker to a safer location. Beyond safety, though, there is very little the University can legally do to prevent speakers from saying things that Miranda admitted may be in direct contradiction to CSU’s Principles of Community.

“When someone makes a speech and advocates a position which is, for instance, against our principles of community, or against academic freedom or against free speech, we are against that,” Miranda said. “But, we still have an obligation to allow those people to speak.”

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On Friday, CSU’s resources will have their first test-drive. With protests planned in opposition to Kirk, of Turning Point USA, and anticipated counter-protests for the protests, the reaffirmation to the first amendment in allowing Kirk’s speech angered some of the campus community and provided hope to others.

Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda during a panel discussion in April 2017. (Collegian File Photo)

“I implore (Isabel Brown), the rest of the Turning Point USA chapter and the administration that permits this event to justify their obvious (condoning) of misogyny and sexual violence,” wrote Hank Stowers, a sophomore anthropology student, to the Collegian in a letter to the editor.

However, Isabel Brown, the student who coordinated and planned the event with Turning Point USA and who serves as the speaker of the Associated Students of Colorado State University senate, said she was grateful to know CSU would allow a space for the event.

“I’ve been really blown away by the support of the University to allow all kinds of groups on campus to bring speakers and share their values,” Brown said. “I have felt a lot of support from the administration, from event planning services and from the police department.”

Brown, the Turning Point USA chapter president at CSU, anticipates the ballroom to be at full capacity: 660 people in attendance. Turning Point USA is giving out more tickets than can be accommodated, and entry will be first come, first serve.

The action, however, might be outside of the ballroom instead of within. If the counter protests pose a threat to campus safety, then the University will step in, Miranda said.

“I’d say our primary obligation is to maintain the safety of our community,” Miranda said. “… some people interpret our acquiescence to allowing (controversial figures) to speak, which is their right, as agreement with their position. That is certainly not the case. We don’t agree with everybody who speaks on campus.”