As I prepare to enter my senior year at Colgate University, I am spending a lot of time reflecting on all that I have learned and how much I have grown over the course of my college experience. Colgate's faculty and students have provided me with opportunities for exploration every day, and it is because of the thoughtful community at Colgate that I have been able to gain so much. It was not until I began my internship at FIRE this summer that I realized that this learning environment is in a precarious position. Colgate University's Standards of Conduct and Non-Academic Policies contain several restrictive "speech codes" that threaten the open exchange of ideas at Colgate. The policies are well intentioned, aimed at protecting students and faculty at Colgate from sexual harassment and bias-related discrimination. But their overbroad and vague language means that they can be applied to speech that is well within the protection of the First Amendment. Although Colgate is a private university, not legally bound by the First Amendment, it claims to value and protect "the rights of free inquiry, expression and assembly." Shouldn't its students, therefore, have the same rights as students at New York's public colleges and universities?
Colgate's policy concerning sexual harassment "prohibits one student from using sexually demeaning language to refer to another student." This includes "vulgar or lewd statements, gender-based name-calling, sexually suggestive or graphic comments, or comments that demean a person because of his or her gender." So, under this policy, even calling another individual a "boy" or a "girl" could theoretically be punished—after all, wouldn't that be "gender-based name-calling"? The policy also prohibits "displaying suggestive or lewd pictures." Following this logic, administrators could punish all students participating in and advertising for the annual Vagina Monologues for its discussion and depiction of female genitalia. In regards to electronic communication, the policy prevents "sexually graphic, threatening or vulgar phone calls, email, text messages, chats or blogs." Under this policy, an email containing an image of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon could be punished because it portrays five nude female prostitutes.
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