Colorado College President Celeste Blogs on “The Monthly Bag”

By April 14, 2008

It turns out that Colorado College President (and former Ohio governor) Dick Celeste has his own blog, “Flow of Ideas,” on Colorado College’s site. This is a very progressive thing for a college president to do, and I think he is to be commended for this attempt to get down in the trenches in the battle of ideas.

Unfortunately, his blog entry about the case of Chris Robinson, Colorado College’s most famously persecuted satirist, is a transparent and poorly-executed effort at spin that nobody could find convincing if they knew even one fact of the case outside the carefully selected facts Celeste gives his readers. The blog entry is worth looking at in its entirety as a sort of “case study” in how administrators willfully misinterpret student speech in order to censor disfavored speakers’ viewpoints, and, often, mollify those speakers’ opponents.

Freedom of speech and personal safety are basic rights we all hold dear. We work hard at Colorado College to ensure both. A recent campus issue is a case in which these principles of good compete.

Celeste begins to conflate posting a satirical flyer with violence in his very first sentence, where he claims that freedom of speech and personal safety “compete” in this instance. This makes no sense unless you think that by “personal safety,” he really means “feelings of personal safety,” which is very different. For example, if you are walking through a dark alley, you may feel unsafe, but if it turns out that nobody is lurking there to assault you, you never actually were unsafe. And, of course, the feeling of personal safety is not a “basic right” at all, and never could be. Unfortunately, Celeste does not seem to grasp that there is a difference between the two, as will shortly be revealed.

(I should note that there is one very good explanation for why Celeste is pretending that personal safety and the feeling of personal safety are the same thing: because he wants to justify censorship that would otherwise universally be considered morally shameful. In fact, I believe this is his real reason for his writing this way, but I’ll analyze his blog entry as if it were written in good faith.)

On a morning in late February, students, faculty and staff arrived at CC buildings to discover fliers, posted anonymously,

Well, technically, they were posted pseudonymously, not anonymously. In fact, it was a product of “The Coalition of Some Dudes,” as can be seen on the flyer itself.

that included in bold type the operational specs of a sniper rifle. The flier also contained other references to guns, chainsaws and a “Fight Club” quote that concludes, “… the survival rate for everyone is zero.”

It also included a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, a definition of “Female Violence and Abuse [of men],” a description of a sexual position from Men’s Health magazine, a pointed comment about political radicalism, and a factoid about how twenty-something women in New York City make more money than similarly situated men. I know this because I am currently looking at the flyer, which I linked above but which Celeste for some reason does not see fit to link to from his blog entry. Hey, if Colorado College doesn’t own a scanner, he could just link to FIRE’s sitewe wouldn’t mind.

But I think I know why Celeste doesn’t link to the flyer itself. It’s because the flyer is a head-smackingly obvious parody of another flyer that was distributed around campus: “The Monthly Bag,” produced pseudonymously by the “Feminist and Gender Studies Interns.” Celeste, his administrators, and just about everyone on campus had to know this, yet he doesn’t link either flyer anywhere in his blog entry. Does the fact that the flyer is a parody change your assessment of it as some kind of sinister concatenation of manuals for the operation of various deadly weapons and quotes from movies with the word “fight” in the title? If you are an ordinary person, it certainly does. If you’re Dick Celeste, apparently not.

And this happened within days of the horrific Valentine’s Day killings at Northern Illinois University, where five students died and 18 were injured when a former student with a shotgun and two handguns fired into a lecture hall.

There is much I want to say about this particular comment, but I will spare you the bile and instead merely point out that what happened at NIU is not exactly the same as putting up a satirical flyer that mentions guns. I am pretty sure the families of the NIU victims would feel the same way. See Greg’s blog entitled “What Can the Virginia Tech Tragedy Do for Me?” excerpted at the end of this post.

The flier contained the name of the purported group that published it, but a check with the campus activities office showed no CC group by that name.

“Red alert! I checked with the campus activities office and it turns out there is no officially registered group called ‘The Coalition of Some Dudes!’ I can’t believe it! Someone call the Coalition of Some Dudes’ national office and tell them they have a wildcat Dude Coalition on their hands!”

My office fielded several calls from students, faculty and staff who were concerned that the fliers constituted a threat.

I would just love to see the records of those calls: “Hi, I saw this flyer that mentions a gun, a chainsaw, and sex and I thought the most appropriate thing to do would be to call the president of the university and complain.”

Because we couldn’t determine who posted them, or even if they were affiliated with CC, the fliers were removed. I issued an all-campus email asking the authors to come forward.

I am trying to follow Celeste’s thought process on this. He has a flyer that he has decided is threatening because it talks about guns and chainsaws and sex and whatnot. So in order to get to the bottom of this and figure out who on campus is ready to make Colorado College the next NIU is…to e-mail everyone and ask the potential snipers to come forward? Do people engaged in a criminal conspiracy usually come forward if you send them an e-mail asking them to? If so, a lot of those Law & Order episodes could have been a lot shorter.

The fact is that you would only send such an e-mail if you thought someone might actually come forward. And that, of course, means you don’t think they’re really planning anything dangerous because letting them know you’re looking for them might cause them to do whatever violent action they’re planning to do before they get caught. If Celeste really thought the Dudes were likely to commit violence, he would have been criminally negligent to have sent that e-mail, and I don’t think any college president is that stupid.

Fortunately, two students did come forward quickly. They said their fliers were intended to satirize a Feminist and Gender Studies publication.

Duh. Like Celeste didn’t already know that by then.

They have every right to create a parody.

Good point! In fact, here’s Colorado College’s actual policy: “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful that it may not be expressed.”

But they chose to do so in what I believe was an irresponsible manner. They posted their parody anonymously, which is a violation of a community standard.

Again, pseudonymously, not anonymously, but that doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s Publius, Richard Saunders, the Sons of Liberty, or thousands of others, speaking or acting anonymously or under a pseudonym has a long and distinguished history in the United States. Of course, like any right, it can be taken advantage of by those with evil purposes as well. But any “community standard” in a free country that prevents speaking anonymously or pseudonymously violates one of our most basic rights and traditions.

And second, they apparently thought that featuring the sniper rifle specs and references to guns, chainsaws and survival rates was merely a macho expression; they didn’t consider how it might be misconstrued as a threat to personal safety on campus.

Probably because talking about the specs of a gun or how to use a chainsaw isn’t a threat, and the “Coalition of Some Dudes” didn’t mean it as such. That’s not to say that such things couldn’t be part of a threat in some situations. But in this case they were part of a political parody, and Colorado College knew that from the start. The fact is that chainsaws and guns are widely considered “macho” and the students didn’t think mentioning them in a parody would be considered a threat because it would be idiotic to think so. Alas, what Chris Robinson and company didn’t consider is that there are a lot of people on campus who have a stake in turning purposefully idiotic interpretations of speech into a big deal.

An initial student conduct ruling found that they violated the college’s standards; no sanctions or punishments were issued. The students have been granted an appeal.

Wrong. This has been Colorado College’s line from the beginning as well“nobody was punished, honest!”and it is a total smokescreen. The students have been ordered to hold a forum about the issue, for one thing. This is not just a pain in the neck, but it is generally something much worsethey provide a convenient opportunity for those angry about the expression to shout and shame their cowed opponents, who are forced to be there under pain of further punishment. At least that eventually ends, though. The real punishment here is that the students now have a letter in their files branding them as violent harassers who, in this case, engaged in the unacceptable “juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality,” whatever that means. In the grand scheme, what it means is this: forget getting a good job or getting into a good grad school. As an employer or admissions officer, would you want the person who was branded a violent harasser in your office or school, even if you think it’s totally bunk? Why take the risk?

Each time there has been a shooting on a college campus – whether at Virginia Tech, where 33 people died and many more were wounded not even a year ago – or just days before these fliers appeared, at Northern Illinois, my phone rings and rings with calls from worried parents. They ask, “What are you doing to ensure the safety of my child?” I feel their fear and concern. This time, the calls came from students, faculty and staff.

Yeah, because hopefully parents would have something better to do than complain about some satirical flyer. It’s too much to hope that college students, faculty, and staff would.

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.

Talk is cheap, President Celeste (Well, not for Chris Robinson and his friend, who face punishment for theirs, but it certainly is for college administrators). If you are a defender of free speech, defend it now and reverse this ridiculous finding against these students.

And as for “maintain[ing] the safety of this campus,” I’m going to close with a point Greg made a while back in a blog entry for the Huffington Post:

Campus administrators really need to understand that the real danger lies in conflating simple hurt feelings and anger with legitimate threats of violence. I have a hard time believing anyone sincerely felt threatened by The Monthly Bagand if someone did, that fear is unreasonable. Administrators have to be able to distinguish between actual threats to campus safety and simple alarmism, lest they trivialize serious claims of potential violence. I mean, doesn’t anyone read The Boy Who Cried Wolf anymore?

President Celeste should drop the absurd persecution of these students and focus on really improving campus safety, not taking risk-free potshots at students who offend the powers-that-be on campus. The Colorado College community deserves nothing less.

Schools: Colorado College Cases: Colorado College: Students Found Guilty for Satirical Flyer