In early September, a photo of four Colorado State University students posing in blackface went viral, setting off an uproar on CSU's campus. This led to questions about First Amendment rights on campus and what the university can and cannot do when it comes to hate speech.
Colorado Edition co-host Henry Zimmerman spoke to KUNC's Amanda Andrews and Stephanie Daniel to get an update on the student response and what the university is doing to protect the rights of the entire CSU community.
HENRY ZIMMERMAN: So, these students that posed in blackface were not punished, the university said they found that these students did not violate student code. Amanda, a week after the photo was posted, the student government, which is made up of 37 elected senators, held a public meeting about the incident and the university's response. Tell us about what the senate did in that meeting.
AMANDA ANDREWS: Students passed two resolutions to hold people accountable for hate speech. They came after students from CSU, and other schools, gave over 2 hours of vivid personal testimonies about how the university had dismissed their experiences with racism on campus in the past and failed to hold people accountable. I spoke to Tristan Reyez, the senator for the College of Health and Human Sciences about his initial reaction to the photo and the meeting.
It was hurtful as person of color on this campus seeing someone make fun of or put on blackface, which is historically a very racist action. It hurt personally because someone was making fun of not necessarily my color of skin, but people that I valued and students on this campus that I value and so it definitely hurt at first. And then when I saw the community support building around this issue, I was moved to tears.
ZIMMERMAN: Stephanie, a day after that student government meeting CSU President Joyce McConnell announced a Race, Bias and Equity Initiative. What does that mean?
STEPHANIE DANIEL: Over the past three months McConnell and representatives from different campus groups have been working to form a strategic transformation. The Race, Bias and Equity Initiative will be one of the six components of the strategic transformation. She said the initiative will tackle bias at its roots.
We've had a diversity initiative and we've had an office of diversity and we have worked very hard to diversify our campus. But now we need to turn our attention to educating everyone on this campus about what is bias and how hurtful it is to our students, faculty and staff.
ZIMMERMAN: Throughout this debate, students and President McConnell have both been citing first amendment rights.
DANIEL: That's right. When I spoke to McConnell about the university's responsibility in handling a situation like this, she said the students in the blackface photo were not punished because they are protected by the First Amendment. Now when I later asked McConnell about the student government's resolution, to hold people accountable for hate speech, she also cited the First Amendment.
I understand that students are very, very angry about hate speech as am I. But I also understand and many of our students understand that speech is protected by the First Amendment, no matter how offensive we find it. Where speech moves into conduct that is threatening and could harm another person of course, when they're together, they're not protected by the First Amendment and then they do fall under the student code.
DANIEL: McConnell also said the university plans to work with students on the resolutions. But CSU is a public institution and the school will not violate the constitution.
ZIMMERMAN: Amanda, what do students think about the First Amendment rights argument?
ANDREWS: The resolution actually cited the policies of the procedures of Housing and Dining Services which says students can't verbally harass people based on their gender, race, religion, and other identities. It then goes on to say that this blackface post is hate speech based in race discrimination and stereotypes. While most students and senators agreed with that, it wasn't unanimous. Ethan Burshek is the senator from the College of Liberal Arts, he voted against the resolution.
To classify this, a non-criminal incident, as hate-speech to me is just factually incorrect. We should strive for the truth at all times and strive to be accurate in the words we say and the way we say it and I think that this resolution failed grossly to do that. So, how do I define hate speech? I define hate speech as speech which is a hate crime… in the context of free speech, right, because you can have speech that is hateful that is still free.
ZIMMERMAN: There have been several racial incidences on campus over the past couple years. Native American students were racially profiled, a ram mascot handler alleged she was the victim racism and discrimination. Then recently this blackface photo and even more recently reports of a swastika appearing on campus. Are students and the president concerned about broader issues around campus culture?
ANDREWS: Yes, so several students expressed in the meeting that racism violates the university's principles of community, which are inclusion, integrity, respect, service, and social justice. They said that as institution of higher education, CSU should take the initiative in educating students about racism and diversity. One of the proposed ideas was for students who violate community policy to take mandatory classes that address racism similar to how the campus handles substance abuse violations. Senator Tristan Reyez says that he believes these repeated incidents do speak to a campus culture of intolerance that can't be ignored.
People are paying attention… Community members, community leaders, teachers, parents are looking at our university right now, which have garnered national headlines from this incident, and saying this university doesn't stand on its principles of community or its values. So, because of that we're not going to send our students or our children. And so, I am concerned that if we don't do something, if we don't act, that people aren't going to feel welcome on this campus and make this campus a less diverse institution.
ZIMMERMAN: And Stephanie, did you ask President McConnell if she shares these concerns?
DANIEL: Yeah, I did and here's what she had to say.
I would worry about that no matter what was going on, but I'm particularly worried about it now. What I think is true about CSU that the public does not understand is that we have greatly diversified our campus and we have worked very hard to be an inclusive community. But part of our inclusiveness is being transparent. We're in a moment nationally where a lot of this kind of activity is going on. I know that it's going on on every campus. I think that because we are trying to tackle it, then that means that more people know about it and it, it could hurt us and I'm worried about that.
ZIMMERMAN: So, what happens going forward? If there's another similar incident, how does the university respond?
DANIEL: I think that's to be determined right now. During McConnell's fall address to students and the campus community she said together we can quote "attack racism head on," then announced the Race, Bias and Equity Initiative. The initiative will include students, faculty and staff and its actions will be focused on the individual, institutional and system levels. McConnell told me one of the first things the initiative will do is to clarify the student code of conduct and what does and does not violate it.
ANDREWS: From the student government perspective, senator Reyez says this initiative is a good avenue for change but what President McConnell needs to do is stay engaged with students and listen to how they would like to proceed and heal from racism on campus.