The Controversy of Free Speech at DU

Graffiti on a DU building

Graffiti on the side of a DU building.

The University of Denver has a lot of history when it has come to students expressing their First Amendment right to free speech, and not all opinions have been welcome on campus.

In 1970, DU students attempted to protest the University’s decision to stay open after the events of the Kent State Massacre. The students lived in a makeshift village for several days, calling it ‘Woodstock West’ until The National Guard was called in to disperse the protest.

“I don’t think [The National Guard] was called in to necessarily restore the campus, but rather to ‘save face’ for the Chancellor.” Sheila Schroeder, a DU professor, said. Schroeder is working on a documentary about Woodstock West.

“The University did some things back then that I would say worked counter to free speech. At the same time, at the center of Woodstock West, there was a stage with a microphone, and all were invited to get up and express themselves.”

Today, students have the Free Speech Wall to voice their opinions on various issues.

“The Wall was born out of the student’s desire to have a place where they could advertise their events and celebrate the DU community.” Carl Johnson, the Executive Director of Campus Life, explained.  

Any DU community member has the ability to paint a statement on one of the designated walls outside of the Driscoll Center. However, in the Fall quarter of 2016, one student faced repercussions for writing song lyrics that were meant to prompt a discussion among members of the DU community.

“I was responding to this email from the Undergraduate Student Government stating how appalled they were about a previous message written on the wall.” The student said. “I was trying to make the point that it is the duty of all of us to work to diminish racism.”

“I tried to use song lyrics in order to separate the statement with affiliation to any kind of movement or organization. To me, the lyrics meant: ‘People are acting like I did something horrendous based solely on my skin color.’ I believed that they conveyed that not one single race is to blame for racism. That message was not intended to be harmful.”

“I was shocked to hear that other people felt threatened by the message, because I didn’t intend for anyone to feel like they were being targeted. I went to go write a new message to say that the lyrics weren’t a threat and to explain my original point in a clearer way, but I was stopped before I could.”

A formal investigation was conducted according to University policy by The Office of Equal Opportunity after a complaint was filed against the student for writing the lyrics. The student was found not to be in violation of the Honor Code.

“If someone is given the platform for free speech, then you shouldn’t be punished for saying anything on there. I’m sorry if anyone interpreted my message as a threat, but I didn’t write the lyrics to target anyone on campus. This whole situation has been a focus on the issue of the language that I used instead of the issue that I was writing about.”  

After messages that were interpreted as being racist were painted on the wall and several physical confrontations, the Undergraduate Student Government placed a camera and new rules on the Free Speech Wall. The camera is recording around the clock but it is not live-monitored. The tape is reviewable should a complaint arise. 

The camera that oversees the Free Speech Wall

The camera that oversees the Free Speech Wall.

Carys Helm, a sophomore studying Accounting at DU, thinks that students should stand by their opinion when writing on the Free Speech Wall.

“I think if you’re given the opportunity to speak your mind, you need to take responsibility for what you say. You can’t have this anonymity when it’s a statement that people can use in a way that is hurtful towards others.”

“The purpose of free speech is to let everyone have their opinion and have their ideas heard. By refusing to take responsibility, it doesn’t fall into free speech and the statement can turn into hate speech easily.”

Johnson claims that free speech is a critical part of the University experience. “We continue to have many conversations about the Wall, including anonymity of the Wall posts. It is not an expectation or policy that a group or individual identify who they are if they choose to paint the Wall.”

In order to extend the conversation of controversial issues beyond the Wall, DU has hosted several events where students are encouraged to express their opinion. The University also offers classes for faculty members to engage in when it comes to controversial topics being discussed in a classroom environment.

“I think any faculty member who is interested in improving their teaching…should take advantage of opportunities to learn about emerging best practices, especially those that are centered on creating inclusive learning environments.” Frank Tuitt, Senior Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost on Diversity and Inclusion, stated.

Only a small number of teachers dedicate their time to going to these classes, according to Sujie Kim, the Program Manager at The Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “[The attendance] is pretty small, we’ll have anywhere between 15 to 65 people attend on average.”

“I feel like professors could build off of these classes if the school mandated that they go to these classes every few years or so. I think DU can encourage professors to utilize more controversial discussions in the classroom and to encourage controversial opinions.” Helm said.

DU does offer additional options for students to exercise their free speech right on campus such as through The Clarion, club discussions, and through social media.

“The University is a place that brings together a variety of perspectives and ideas.” Theresa Ahrens, the Interim Communications Director at DU, declared.

“We do want there to be discourse and that people can talk about different things, but always in a respectful manner.”

One Response to The Controversy of Free Speech at DU

  • Maisie Karlin
    Maisie Karlin says:

    Really well written article. I really liked how you pulled in some DU history from the 1970’s and then related that to some free speech controversies on campus now. You used lots of great quotes from diverse sources, which really helped to verify the claims in your article.

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