The Spring semester at University of California Berkeley began with flames, shouts, and sparks. This was all due to protests and violent riots that broke out in response to Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak at the campus. He never was able to speak, due to safety concerns because of the rioters.
Yiannopoulos is an unabashedly proud ultra-conservative gay man who has caused controversy with his bold, uncensored statements about everything from Muslims to feminists. He is admired by many for speaking his mind regardless of what people think of him. For every supporter he has, he likely has at least two more haters. Despite opposition, Yiannopoulos seems unfazed. “I care a lot more about how my hair looks than whether people agree with my politics,” Yiannopoulos wrote in one Facebook post.
This situation at UC Berkeley has sparked a conversation about free speech. People are questioning whether the speech Yiannopoulos uses, including offensive statements or “hate speech,” is constitutionally protected. On public college campuses, the answer is still probably yes. Controversial speech is still free speech under the first amendment. However, students and citizens also have a right to peacefully protest if they don’t agree. Private campuses are a little different because they are not legally bound by the first amendment.
This controversy made me think about how Rocky Mountain College would react to a speaker like Yiannopoulos. According to a recent evaluation by an outside organization, RMC’s speech policies are not perfect, and have a lot of room for improvement.
This past December, Rocky’s speech policies were professionally evaluated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) This evaluation was done upon my request and has not yet been made public. According to the organization’s website, FIRE was founded in 1999 with the mission “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” FIRE specializes in guarding free speech on college campuses across America and has won multiple court cases defending the use of speech.
FIRE gives ratings to colleges depending on the restrictions of speech that the school has and ranks them from “green light,” which is the freest speech policy, to “red light,” which is the most restrictive. Rocky earned “yellow light” and “red light” ratings on its speech policies.
Rocky earned a yellow and red light rather than a green light due to an analysis of its policies.
According to the Student Code of Conduct, “Rocky Mountain College is a community of scholars in which the ideals of freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of the individual are sustained.” Although this seems as though we can reasonably expect the right to free speech code, the following policies seem to contradict this claim. In the harassment policy, the definition for harassment includes, but is not limited to slurs, jokes, and other verbal, graphic, or physical conduct relating to an individual’s race, color, sex, religion, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, or sexual orientation. This policy is quite extensive, and received a red light score from FIRE because of how broadly it can be interpreted.
In contrast to Rocky’s harassment policy, the Supreme Court determined that student to student harassment must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive…that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
Similar to the harassment definition, the sexual harassment policy at Rocky is also written with a broad stroke in comparison to the standard of the Supreme Court.
Since it is a private school, Rocky Mountain College is not legally bound by the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment. However, Rocky does make institutional promises to uphold freedom of thought and expression. It’s up to you to decide whether you believe Rocky’s harassment policies follow this initial promise.
Despite these policies, I have never seen or heard of anyone at Rocky who was punished as a result of violation of these policies.
In fact, in Fall 2016, the Young Americans for Liberty club had a free speech event where people were able to write whatever they wanted on a six foot beach ball. Despite the swear words, Harambe references, and cruel things written about Obama, the Clintons, and Trump, the event was not shut down and no one was punished for violating the speech code.