Back in April I wrote about the regrettable case of The Monthly Bag, a student-authored pamphlet at Colorado College issued to satirize a feminist publication called the Monthly Rag. The Monthly Rag, the subject of the satire, had content like this:
The flyer included a reference to "male castration," an announcement about a lecture on "feminist porn" by a "world-famous prostitute and porn star," an explanation of "packing" (pretending to have a phallus), and a quotation from The Bitch Manifesto.
The satirical Monthly Bag, in response, had content like this:
The flyer included references to "chainsaw etiquette," the shooting range of a sniper rifle, a quotation regarding a sexual position from the website menshealth.com, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse" of men from the website batteredmen.com.
But one makes fun of academic feminists (as compared to people devoted to the formal and social equality of the genders) at one's dire peril. Colorado College reacted . . . well . . . hysterically.
Shortly thereafter, Colorado College President Richard F. Celeste sent out a campus-wide email about "The Monthly Bag," stating that "The flyers include threatening and demeaning content, which is categorically unacceptable in this community… Anonymous acts meant to demean and intimidate others are not [welcome]." The e-mail asked the authors of "The Monthly Bag" to come forward. When they did less than an hour later, they were charged with violating the college's values of respect and integrity.
Eventually the students wound up with reprimands in their file and were found officially guilty of violations of the student code of conduct on the grounds that the flier was "implicitly threatening," distributed anonymously, and involved a "juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality" in this Orwellian letter from Colorado College Vice President Mike T. Edmonds. Edmonds also "suggested" — in a context that made the suggestion a clear demand — that they hold a forum where people could express what terrible, terrible people they were to hurt everyone's tender feelings so.
Naturally, as a private institution, Colorado College is free to censor such publications if no state law prohibits it. But they should not thereafter be taken seriously as an institution of higher learning committed to freedom of expression.
Since the initial disciplinary proceeding, Colorado College has engaged in a series of desultory bureaucratic "reviews" of the decision, as well as an aggressive public relations campaign defending it. The FIRE has constantly called them out on it.
This week Colorado College's President, Dick Celeste, published a post on his blog further defending the disciplinary decision and suggesting that FIRE was unreasonable because it rates almost all schools as having unacceptable commitments to freedom of expression. FIRE responded, demonstrating that Celeste had misrepresented or misunderstood their rating system.
I spotted that post and followed the link to Celeste's blog. I saw that the blog — which, rather ironically, is called Flow of Ideas — appears open to comments. I commented on the post that FIRE had highlighted, addressing his suggestion that the discipline must have been right because it was ratified by a new committee and the Board of Trustees. I was plain, but not profane, I think. Judge for yourself. This is what I wrote:
Mr. Celeste, FIRE responds to your point — which rather misleadingly characterizes its rating systems — here.
As to the substance of your post, I don't think you'll find many people who find the conclusions of Colorado College's in-house entities to be comforting. The facts seem to be fairly straightforward: students published what any rational person would see as a satire of a pre-existing campus publication, Colorado College officialdom reacted with what seems to be a rather farcical and disingenuous concern that the satire suggested actual violence, and required the publishers — among other things — to hold a sort of self-run reeducation seminar.
While I may have disagreed with some of FIRE's characterizations of the significance of the reprimand letters, I don't think that you should expect that Colorado College's commitment to freedom of expression will be taken seriously after this whole shootin' match.
By the way, the term "shootin' match" in the previous sentence was not intended to threaten or condone actual violence. I shouldn't have to point that out, but in some cases, apparently I do.
Later I added a second comment to fix the broken link to FIRE's response.
Both comments were briefly in moderation, then were posted. [Edit: I may be mistaken about this. It appeared to me that the comments were posted. But I see from my screenshot a small indicator that they are still in moderation. I thought that at one point they were posted without that moderation disclaimer. I could be wrong.]
Later yesterday, they disappeared. But don't worry. I took a screenshot first. (You'll have to click the magnifier it to read it. Sorry.) [Edit: Again, I may be mistaken that they were deleted rather than not released from moderation — I believe I saw them posted without the moderation disclaimer at one point, although that disclaimer is in the screenshot. At any rate, we'll see if they ever get posted.]
My co-blogger Patrick submitted an even more genteel comment which has never appeared:
President Celeste, while I don’t support what the students behind the Monthly Bag did, I do find your response to the FIRE on the issue troubling in that you emphasize their publication was made “anonymously and without permission,” as though that makes it wrong in and of itself.
Surely you’re aware that Madison, Hamilton, and Jay published The Federalist anonymously or under pseudonym, and that much important speech, far more important than this, has been published anonymously out of fear of punishment such as your college has inflicted upon these students. (If the disciplinary letters you mention are of no import as you suggest, why file them at all?)
As for students needing permission to publish, surely it goes without saying what that smacks of. Of course you run a private college and are beyond the First Amendment, but it does seem at odds with your earlier protestations of commitment to free speech, at least as the term is understood at law if not in academia.
The circumstances suggest that the comment feature on President Celeste's blog Flow of Ideas is like Colorado College's stated commitment to freedom of expression — only for show, not for actual use, boastfully stated but not sincere. Now, President Celeste has every right to delete [edit: or keep in moderation and refuse to post] whatever comments he likes on his blog, even if it is on the school web site, even if he does call the damn thing Flow of Ideas. But when he does, he shouldn't be taken seriously as an advocate or defender of free expression or free expression of ideas. That's true even if he is fond of saying things like this:
I have been a staunch defender of free speech on this campus since the day I arrived here. I defended it in the face of alumni and community pressures when Hanan Ashrawi spoke on campus. And I will continue to defend it. I defend our students’ right to make their case. But first and foremost, I will always do what I can to maintain the safety of this campus. For without that, we would find our freedom of speech truly at risk.
I hear, in President Celeste's statement, echoes of certain elements of our current administration telling us, in so many words, that it was necessary to destroy the village of liberty in order to save it. Both pay only lip service to actual freedom. Both expect us to accept uncritically their evaluation — irrational though it may be — of the danger posed by any situation, and the effectiveness and necessity of their proposed solution. I hear in President Celeste's statement the echo of Ari Fleischer's "Americans . . . need to watch what they say."
In sharp contrast to President Celeste's apparent attitude to dissent on his blog, consider FIRE's response to criticism. In my original post on this issue I was quite critical of what I saw as an overstatement of the situation by The FIRE's Adam Kissel, who had suggested that Colorado College's rhetoric condemning The Monthly Bag constituted punishment or suppression. Did Kissel and The FIRE ignore my criticism, attempt to censor it, or misrepresent it? No. Kissel posted a response the same day, in which he agreed in part, clarified his earlier statement, and outlined our areas of agreement and disagreement. That's a commitment to freedom of expression you can respect.
On the other hand, Colorado College, Vice President Mike T. Edmonds, and President Dick Celeste should earn our scorn for wrapping themselves in the banner of free expression while cynically abusing it. They have earned FIRE's red light warning with each word of censorship and insincerity.
Maybe you should post a comment on Mr. Celeste's blog. But don't get too attached to your post. I don't think it will be there for long.
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