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Amy Parsons, legal experts speak on 1st Amendment in higher education

Colorado+State+University+President+Amy+Parsons+introduces+a+new+question+for+the+panel+at+the+Conversation+on+the+First+Amendment+and+Higher+Education+panel.
Collegian | Cait Mckinzie
Colorado State University President Amy Parsons introduces a new question for the panel at the Conversation on the First Amendment and Higher Education event March 25.

The First Amendment is a familiar subject of both general conversation and news headlines in today’s societal climate of political polarization and the influence of the digital age. It can often seem like it comes up everywhere, especially on a college campus.

Given the importance of understanding just what the First Amendment means on a public university campus, the Office of the President at Colorado State University put together a panel of university employees with extensive experience handling issues related to the First Amendment.

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The panel featured Kyle Henley, CSU vice president for marketing and communications; Jason Johnson, general counsel for the CSU System; Jannine Mohr, deputy general counsel for the CSU System; and Rye Vigil, CSU assistant vice president for inclusive excellence. The discussion was moderated by CSU President Amy Parsons.

“(The) First Amendment talks about what the university can and can’t do, but it doesn’t mean that just because someone has the right to say something hateful or express really hateful thoughts or opinions that it’s without consequence.” -Jannine Mohr, CSU System deputy general counsel

The event was held Monday, March 25, in the Lory Student Center ballrooms as part of the university’s thematic Year of Democracy. It was open to the public with both students and faculty encouraged to attend.

“Our responsibility remains as critical as ever to intentionally foster and build … dialogue, speech disagreement, differences of opinion (and) sometimes passionate debate over critical issues of the day,” Parsons said in her opening remarks. “Indeed, I think that it is only through such dialogue and inclusive speech that we can collectively make progress as a society and as a university.”

The panel first focused on defining the First Amendment in the context of higher education. The general counsel for the CSU System focused on the legal ramifications of free speech on college campuses and the implications of free speech in the academic campus environment.

“(The) First Amendment talks about what the university can and can’t do, but it doesn’t mean that just because someone has the right to say something hateful or express really hateful thoughts or opinions that it’s without consequence,” Mohr said.

Both Mohr and Johnson also focused on some of the nuances when discussing free speech and freedom of expression, focusing on the distinction between free expression in a private space like an office or a dorm as opposed to a public space such as a department bulletin.

The conversation then turned to discuss the role of CSU in the conversation on free speech as a public institution.

“I think one of the healthy things that higher education as a whole and that includes CSU has done over the last few years is really some soul searching about when we speak and kind of what is the bar for when we weigh in,” Henley said. “I think you’re seeing higher education set that bar higher than it had been a number of years ago.”

While much of the discussion focused on the issue through a legal framework and the role of the university as one entity, there was also a significant focus on students on campus.

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Each of the panelists discussed the role of the First Amendment in students’ lives and emphasized the responsibility CSU has to support students and their right to free expression.

“We want to learn what we can say and when it’s appropriate,” Vigil said. “I completely believe that, but I think most of us really rally behind how we support our students.”

Vigil specifically focused on the harm that can come to students from individual people or organizations that use the First Amendment as a way to intentionally make students feel unwelcome or unheard on campus.

“We see it,” Vigil said. “We see our students hurting, and we don’t want them to hurt. We want to support them. We want them to thrive here.”

The panelists didn’t solely focus on the risks free expression brings; they also highlighted the power the First Amendment places in the hands of students. Several benefits it affords students at a public university moving ahead were highlighted, including the possibility for speech demonstrations surrounding the upcoming national elections.

Several of the speakers expressed the belief that it is highly important that students have the ability to use their voices if they so choose.

The event concluded with a reminder about the goal of this event and events like it throughout the thematic Year of Democracy: to educate the campus community around free speech policies.

“There’s a lot to be concerned about,” Johnson said. “Things are very divisive right now, (but) the counterpoint (is) there’s actually a lot of hope. It’s instilling hope in our students and our faculty, staff (through) all the things that are going on in our campus (and) all the events that (we’re) doing.”

Reach Hannah Parcells and Allie Seibel at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @CSUCollegian.

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About the Contributors
Hannah Parcells
Hannah Parcells, News Editor
Hannah Parcells is currently the news editor at The Collegian, a role that she loves dearly. Parcells uses she/her pronouns and began writing for The Collegian in fall 2023 as a reporter under the news, science, opinion and life and culture desks.  Parcells is currently pursuing two degrees: a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a concentration in global politics. Parcells has always been passionate about understanding and helping other people and hopes to use her education to try and leave the world a little better than she found it.  Raised in Castle Rock, Colorado, Parcells grew up with a love of learning, music and writing. She’s always working to learn more about the world through history and art and loves being introduced to new places, people and ideas.  On the off chance that she’s not buried in textbooks, research papers and policy analyses, Hannah can be found on a hike, watching movies or at any local bookstore or coffee shop, feeding her ongoing addictions to both caffeine and good books. Parcells is incredibly proud of the work she’s done at The Collegian so far and is excited to continue that work as an editor of the news desk.
Allie Seibel
Allie Seibel, Editor in Chief
Allie Seibel is the editor in chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian, a role she loves more and more with each day. Previously the news editor and news director of The Collegian, Seibel has a background in news, but she’s excited to branch out and experience every facet of content this and following years. Seibel is a sophomore journalism and media communications major minoring in business administration and legal studies. She is a student in the Honors Program and is also an honors ambassador and honors peer mentor. She also is a satellite imagery writer for the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Seibel is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and loves how The Collegian has gotten her acquainted with Fort Collins and CSU. When she’s not writing, reporting or in class, you can always find her with a book, cross-stitching, planning where to travel to next, trying out a new recipe or listening to Taylor Swift. Seibel is incredibly proud of The Collegian’s past and understands the task of safeguarding its future. She’s committed to The Collegian’s brand as an alt-weekly newspaper and will continue to advance its status as a strong online publication while preserving the integrity and tradition of the print paper. Seibel is excited to begin a multi-year relationship with readers at the helm of the paper and cannot wait to see how the paper continues to grow. Through initiatives like the new science desk and letting each individual desk shine, Seibel is committed to furthering The Collegian and Rocky Mountain Student Media over the next few years.

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