At least a dozen students complained to faculty at Colorado Mesa University that they were “offended or unsettled” after candidates for president and vice president of student government used the slogan “Feel the D,” new records reviewed by Heat Street show. Such complaints are nothing new — but in an era when trigger-happy college administrators are eager to shield special snowflakes from any possible controversy or offense, Colorado Mesa University’s response was as refreshing as it was rare: They refused to act as censors.
“As I’m sure you would agree, free speech (most especially, political speech) does not require my or anyone’s approval,” wrote John Marshall, vice president for student services, in an April 2016 email reviewed by Heat Street. Students could use the slogan, though “whether or not [it] was/is a good idea and how [they] want to represent themselves is a wholly different discussion.”
Marshall says Colorado Mesa University doesn’t consider its approach exceptional, adding that “for a whole host of reasons, no one should be more concerned about free speech than a university.”
The university does not have a Bias Response Team, as some other schools have implemented, and does not have plans to establish one, Marshall says. Instead, Marshall says faculty encourage students to discuss controversial or offensive ideas “rather than trying to man some kind of affirmative consent to someone’s ideology.”
Furthermore, after receiving a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calling attention to the censorious potential of Colorado Mesa’s free-speech zones, Marshall says, the university did away with them altogether, declaring the entire campus open for free speech and debate.
The public records reviewed by Heat Street suggest that Colorado Mesa University’s free-speech-first approach is working. While other universities received dozens of complaints, Colorado Mesa University reported just five last year, resolved with little fanfare.
In the “Feel the D” case, the students with the racy slogan ended up getting elected. Faculty encouraged the feminist group that complained to directly approach the student candidates, emphasizing that any meeting would be voluntary. The feminists expressed why they were offended — but they were also asked “to listen to why [the candidates] thought that was funny or appropriate,” Marshall tells Heat Street. “Both walked away with a good outcome.”
Other records reviewed by Heat Street show how Colorado Mesa University handled a defaced promotional poster for a Latino event. The defaced poster originally advertised the Latino Student Alliance, but someone crossed out “Latino,” wrote “white,” also crossed that out, then wrote “human race” above it.
Instead of condemning the vandal or assuming racist motives, the Cultural Diversity Board wrote an open letter in the student newspaper, noting that “you made a passive yet poignant statement by defacing one of our Alliance’s posters.” The Diversity Board extended an invitation to come talk, promising to hear the student out and noting how “misunderstanding and miscommunication” deepen existing divides.
“When the proper channels and avenues of communication are provided, it gives us the rare opportunity to express our opinions in a healthy way and to learn from others. … We hope you understand that this letter is written only out of our undivided attention, purposeful reflection, honest intention and genuine concern. We have no ulterior motive. We have no hidden agenda. Our intention in writing you is to say first and foremost, we hold no malice towards you on any level,” the letter says.
In contrast, at the University of Colorado, the Bias Response Team responded swiftly last semester when a vandal wrote “free speech matters” and “all lives do matter” on a poster on campus. They replaced the defaced poster with another that claimed “this was the site of a bias related behavior.” The graffiti’d poster was removed, they said, “to eliminate further impact of hateful speech.”
The public records reviewed by Heat Street show Colorado Mesa University intervened in just a few instances. In one, officials removed Club Hockey posters that depicted Colorado Mesa’s mascot sodomizing a competitor’s mascot; in another, the university asked a student to remove a Confederate flag from his dorm room after repeated reports of racial comments and one instance of two roommates physically scuffling over the flag.
“The issue is, how do we confront new ideas and concepts that are different from what we know and expect,” says Marshall. “We need to help challenge our students. You don’t have a right not to be uncomfortable. We don’t always need to create these ultra-sensitive responses. We want them to think critically and deal with each other with respect and civility.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Steamboat Institute.