Campus in Contention: Rhetoric doesn’t have to harm

Lauryn Bolz and Abby Vander

graphic illustration of hands pulling at a rope that spells out Campus with the words In Contention underneath it in sign posts and cell phones
(Graphic illustration by Charlie Dillon | The Collegian)

Editor’s Note: ‘Campus in Contention’ is an editorial series by The Collegian staff that examines conflicts in our community surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion and proposes solutions for how we can move forward. This article contains terms that may be triggering to some audiences. Read part two. Read part three.

If you’ve spent any time on Colorado State University’s campus — or any college campus — you’ve seen that free speech is a pillar of our higher education system. More than that, the ability to hear new ideas and debate them with other people is central not only to us growing as human beings but to the very functioning of our democracy. 

What happens, then, when free speech causes conflict?

Over and over again, members of the CSU community have watched debates, protests and altercations take hold as controversial speakers visited campus.

While free speech is a necessary and protected right, many students feel that certain types of speech are harmful, especially in efforts to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion. This creates a fundamental irony in which students are more likely to be oppressed by free speech than liberated by it.

We need to consider the implications of the contentious dialogue on campus that favors the privileged. Re-examining the way we react to the use of First Amendment rights as a defense for harming others may be the first step in driving real social change. 

What you might consider hate speech someone else might consider free speech and vice versa, and what we always want to prevent, and can within the limits of the law, is to protect people’s safety: their physical safety or the safety of their property.”– Joyce McConnell, CSU president

The impacts of campus speech go beyond the intentional; speech can cause harm even when its goal was to do the opposite.

We saw this most recently in the controversy over the presence of Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles, who spoke at the 20th annual CSU Diversity Symposium. 

Less than a week before Abdullah was set to speak, Jewish community members expressed concern over her previous rhetoric in emails to the Presidential Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Anti-Semitism. They cited a tweet she wrote in 2019 that expressed support for Louis Farrakhan, a religious leader who has made anti-Semitic remarks. 

“Some members of our community view her as a champion of diversity, inclusion and equity values,” CSU President Joyce McConnell said in a statement on Oct. 19. “Others, particularly members of our Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities, see her invitation as undermining equal protections and lending legitimacy to figures and organizations standing in opposition to CSU values.” 

In response, over 140 students and community members signed an open letter to McConnell, criticizing her for dividing the Black and Jewish communities on campus. 

“In the public denunciation of Dr. Abdullah, you have solidified whiteness as a standard that allows white supremacist speakers to come to campus and exercise their right to free speech without condemnation while failing to hold the same standards for one who fights for Black liberation,” the letter said.

Speakers have brought controversy to CSU’s campus before in ways that impacted student safety more directly.

In February 2018, a neo-Nazi group arrived on CSU’s campus the night of an event hosted by CSU’s chapter of Turning Point USA, where Charlie Kirk, TPUSA’s founder, spoke.

Members of campus protested the event, including Young Democratic Socialists of America. The neo-Nazi group Traditionalist Worker Party, which is designated as a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center, moved onto campus armed with shields, bats and gas masks, according to The Collegian. The night ended when there were altercations between the neo-Nazis and antifa, an anti-fascist group, and the police ordered a dispersal.

Conflict broke out again in October 2018 when a student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat told students of color to “go back to Africa” in an altercation following the Bernie Sanders rally that was held in the Lory Student Center. 

The next week, Dennis Prager visited campus. Prager is the leader of Prager University, a conservative media group known for releasing false and misleading information. Various students voiced concerns before Prager’s visit during an Associated Students of CSU senate session. 

TPUSA invited Prager to campus, requesting $13,999 in funding from ASCSU — $1 under the limit that requires the request be reviewed by the senate, according to a previous article from The Collegian. The article notes that students felt the use of their fees to bring Prager to campus was unjust due to his discriminatory views on women, LGBTQ+ and Muslim communities. 

In 2019, Kirk returned to campus with Donald Trump Jr. for a “Culture War” event. Proud Boys, labeled a general hate group by SPLC, stood outside the event amid protests led by Young Democratic Socialists of America. 

While each of these situations is complex and multifaceted, they share common elements — most notably the endangerment of marginalized communities under the guise of free speech.

Much debate has been raised over what the University’s role is in keeping hateful speakers at bay.  According to CSU’s website, “The University celebrates, honors and respects the First Amendment and your right to free speech. However, those rights are not without limit, and it’s important to understand what constitutes protected expressive activity and what is not permitted at this public university.”

Speakers can either be invited to campus through a University-sponsored event or through a registered student organization, according to Mike Hooker, director of media relations and Denver outreach.

Hooker explained that for University-sponsored events such as the Diversity Symposium or Monfort Lecture Series, the department responsible for the event will determine who to invite. In these cases, the University has discretion in who comes to campus. 

How am I supposed to sit in class when there are tanks outside, and they are putting up barricades because they are bringing in a speaker that, last year, made it so I couldn’t go out all weekend or walk around?”-Jayla Hodge, former CSU student and former Collegian opinion editor 

If the event is put on by a student organization, that group has “broad latitude” to choose the speaker as long as it does not disrupt University functions or harm students, there is space available and the event follows all University policies and guidelines, according to Hooker.

He also noted that the University may not prohibit a speaker from coming to campus due to a viewpoint, as they are protected under the First Amendment.

“I know that hate speech is hurtful, and I mean that in a very profound way,” McConnell said. She explained that we have a responsibility to engage in inclusive discourse and to try to move forward. 

“What you might consider hate speech someone else might consider free speech and vice versa, and what we always want to prevent, and can within the limits of the law, is to protect people’s safety: their physical safety or the safety of their property,” McConnell said.  “What we can do when people are being harmed by speech and feel harmed is really be there to support them in multiple different ways.”

The American Civil Liberties Union notes that while potentially harmful speech is protected under The Constitution, it is necessary and more impactful for universities to address the root causes for why this type of speech exists in the first place.

Impacts and solutions

The fact remains that the conflicts these events seem to bring have a serious impact on students.

protest sign
Protesters create signs at a solidarity event on campus before marching to protest the Turning Point USA Culture Wars event hosted by Charlie Kirk with special guest Donald Trump Jr. at the University Center for the Arts Oct. 22, 2019. (Matt Tackett | The Collegian)

Jayla Hodge, the opinion editor at The Collegian from 2018-19, was not able to write about her own experiences during the 2018 Kirk event for her own safety and at the discretion of The Collegian’s management at the time. She spoke out eight months later when Prager was brought to campus, an event that she felt echoed what happened earlier in the year.

According to the column Hodge wrote, the neo-Nazis’ presence on campus caused University personnel, accompanied by armed police officers, to escort her and other Black students to the Black/African American Cultural Center office. 

“We were told we hadn’t done anything wrong, but it was unsafe for us to leave,” Hodge said in her column. “Together, we stood shocked and nervous. Employees told us they could not force us to stay in the room, but they did not recommend we go.”

Hodge believed Kirk’s presence created a space for white supremacists in the community to come out of the woodwork.

“I was terrified because these people live here, they are among us (and) they are walking around bold as day right now, but they also walk around every day in the crowd,” Hodge said in an interview. “Now, I have to be aware that I don’t know who is around me, and I don’t feel safe anymore in my day-to-day.”

Not only was this a threat to Hodge’s physical safety, but it also affected her emotional state and her schoolwork. 

“I pay money to go to CSU and to get an education, and I can’t focus on what I’m paying to do, to go and learn, because I’m worried about my safety,” Hodge said. “And I’m worried about my friends. … How am I supposed to sit in class when there are tanks outside, and they are putting up barricades because they are bringing in a speaker that, last year, made it so I couldn’t go out all weekend or walk around?” 

CSU is not the only university with events that have caused harm to students.

Jaden Edison, the editor-in-chief of Texas State University’s The University Star, witnessed a string of conflicts transpire after TPUSA funded a student government president under the table

“Brooklyn Boreing became our student government president, and … it came out that she got donations from Turning Point USA, … and none of those contributions were listed,” Edison said. “She resigned from her position and never confirmed or denied the allegations.”

Following Boreing’s resignation, Texas State’s student government began a legislation that attempted to ban TPUSA from its campus. Backlash arose from this, notably from a right-wing group called the Texas Nomads. According to Edison, on May 1, 2019, this drew a crowd from both sides of the political spectrum, and though the Texas Nomads never showed up, a conflict started within the crowd.  

“Long story short, … four students of color get arrested,” Edison said. “All of that stemmed from things that happened with TPUSA.”

According to Edison, TPUSA has not been as active on campus this year, but their rhetoric still affects students on campus.

“A lot of students weren’t happy (with the university), and a lot of them are still facing legal battles from the May 1 incident,” Edison said. “They felt that they didn’t receive a lot of support from the university.”

The Collegian could not reach CSU’s chapter of TPUSA for comment.

“The limits to free speech are few, and violence is one of those limits,” McConnell said. “Anytime … we have any sense that there’s going to be violence, we are always going to be prepared to protect our students, faculty and staff, but we always have to balance that against our obligations to free speech.”

Greg Dickinson, chair of the department of communication studies, said there are ways we can effectively respond to hateful speakers. 

When we’re in the public sphere and someone is saying something that we don’t like, our temptation as humans is to shut down that speech,” he said. “The communication studies response and rhetoric says, rather than shutting down speech, do more speech.”

When Kirk returned to campus in 2019, Dickinson and other professors within the communications department held a “teach-in” event as an alternative. The event included conversations around the history of race and racism in politics and how political engagement has been challenged.

“We knew how many were responding to the fact he was here: the anxiety, the worry, the concern and the sense of creating a campus space that was less welcoming for … minoritized folks,” Dickinson said.

“We always draw the line at violence, but the question (is) always, ‘Is it the speaker who’s creating the violence, or is the violence being created by people who are coming to hear the speaker?’” McConnell said. “We’re always very concerned about remaining content neutral while keeping everyone safe.”

ACLU notes that instead of denouncing speakers in a performative way, universities should “step up their efforts to recruit diverse faculty, students and administrators; increase resources for student counseling; and raise awareness about bigotry and its history.”

McConnell mentioned that actions such as preparing professors to facilitate conversations about the elections or allowing Black Lives Matter demonstrations on campus help to create an inclusive campus dialogue.

McConnell noted that the University could work with student groups to help them keep their peers safe during events. For example, she said TPUSA had to meet with the Colorado State University Police Department to discuss safety measures when it brought Kirk to campus.

How journalists can help

As journalists, our job is to balance speech and to tell the whole story accurately. However, when reporters are unable to attend events because the speaker threatens their safety, it inhibits them from speaking out about the truth. 

According to Hodge, her decision to attend the Kirk event was driven by her duties at The Collegian. 

“We had to get an article out that night, and I’m the editor, so I have to balance my role as a student with my identity with my role as a boss,” Hodge said. “So I had to go and cover it.”

If I’m writing to 100 people that don’t agree with me, and 99 are going to fight me, but one person changes their mind — or at least, God forbid, opens it a little bit — that makes it all the more important.” -Leta McWilliams, former Collegian opinion editor

Conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer visited Michigan State University’s campus in 2016 and 2018, respectively. 

Brigid Kennedy, a journalist for the The State News, a student-run newspaper at MSU, at the time, noticed increasing conflict on campus.

people protest
Colorado State University students, community members and members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America carry signs as they march to protest the Turning Point USA Culture Wars event hosted by Charlie Kirk with special guest Donald Trump Jr. at the University Center for the Arts, Oct. 22, 2019. (Matt Tackett | The Collegian)

“Things were tense (in the newsroom), and things at State were so tense already during that time,” Kennedy said. “I’m pretty sure that was the height of (Larry) Nassar trial stuff — just, everything seemed very serious and very big all at the same time.”

Kennedy had originally planned to cover the Yiannopoulos event but left after feeling unsafe upon encountering people who previously harassed her at a Trump campaign headquarters in Lansing, Michigan, during an election night watch party.

Stories like Kennedy’s are not unique. The Collegian’s own reporters have been put in jeopardy as a result of their work. 

Leta McWilliams, a former opinion editor for The Collegian, was doxxed after writing a column about why student fees shouldn’t be used to bring Prager to campus.

To dox someone is to share their private information, such as an address or phone number, as a form of retribution.

McWilliams started receiving threatening phone calls and emails, and so did her parents. She said she would receive a call about every 20 minutes, noting that it seemed like “organized harassment.”

“My parents’ house was getting the phone calls first,” McWilliams said. “People were trying to tell my parents that I was being disrespectful, that I was being slanderous toward a celebrity or some sh*t, all the typical terms of ‘libt*rd’ and ‘snowflake,’ all of that … rhetoric was definitely thrown about.” 

McWilliams noted that although she felt supported by her peers in the newsroom, the experience made her feel unsafe on campus.

“If it doesn’t fit into the narrative that they feel comfortable with or have based their reality and existence on, (people) will do pretty much anything to try and diminish you as a person … just because they’re unwilling to learn,” McWilliams said. “If I’m writing to 100 people that don’t agree with me, and 99 are going to fight me, but one person changes their mind — or at least, God forbid, opens it a little bit — that makes it all the more important.”

In addition to solutions on a campuswide level, there are ways that journalists can help keep one another safe. These solutions could include improving media literacy and increasing support for journalists in the newsroom.

Much of this comes down to diversity in the newsroom in general; the more identities there are in a room, the higher the chance that students will be better represented in final decisions. According to Hodge, there were years in the newsroom she felt that her writing was more supported than others. 

“My editors were all white,” Hodge said. “They didn’t understand where I was coming from, and if they wanted to change something in my writing for flow purposes or grammatical purposes, I’m arguing that they are changing my point, and they can’t see that.”

Since articles pass through so many different hands in the production process, having a diverse group of editors can stop miscommunication from happening and provide essential perspectives on media literacy. 

“In my experience, newsrooms aren’t homogenous,” Kennedy said. “The process of editing can change a story so much. … A lot of times, people think that the reporter is the one who has created this whole narrative, and it’s not always true. … I wonder if there’s a level of media literacy that the general public doesn’t have, if media literacy in general could help solve some of those problems.”

Editing and management decisions are especially important when they have to do with pieces on controversial speakers, as they have the potential to put writers in danger. McWilliams noted that one way to reduce this harm is to stand by reporters’ work.

“You need to have a backbone and integrity, and you need to stand behind your writers,” McWilliams said. “And if it’s factual and valid, you need to publish it, and then you need to essentially put together a wall to make sure the information is protected.”

McWilliams and Kennedy also noted that preparing journalists and audiences for possible situations of tension could help dissolve conflict before it arises.

According to McConnell, the reason a wide range of speakers are brought to campus is in the pursuit of truth. 

“If there’s violence that’s actually going to physically threaten someone from getting that truth, then absolutely, we want that person to be protected, and that’s … why we work so closely with the CSUPD when there is going to be any kind of threat of violence,” McConnell said.

CSU’s free speech policy addresses safety in terms of physical harm and property damage, but the broad concept of safety can mean different things to different people, especially when it comes to marginalized groups that are greatly affected by the rhetoric promoted by some speakers. 

The University’s ideas of safety don’t necessarily match that of individuals. Because the policy does not address safety in terms of mental and emotional harm, students are not always able to speak their own truth. In this way, bringing speakers to campus who inhibit safe access to free speech undermines the very values these speakers claim to promote.

Editor’s Note: Leta McWilliams and Jayla Hodge are former members of The Collegian. Hodge currently works with The Collegian as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.

Abby Vander Graaff and Lauryn Bolz can be reached at editor@collegian.com or on Twitter @abbym_vg and @laurynbolz.