First Amendment — 1, CU administration — 0


Administrators at CU are like those people who go to Vegas, lose a bunch of money, come back home and tell everyone who will listen that they really won, and then either refuse to admit, or are honestly incapable of grasping, that they have a serious problem.


For more than 20 years, the annual 4/20 event on the CU campus came and went pretty much without incident. There is really no reason to think that this year would have been any different had those who run the University not decided to make it different, but they did, and it was.

As a result of the administration’s failed attempt to stop the 4/20 protest, it has embarrassed itself along with the institution. Thanks to the misguided efforts of its leaders, the University of Colorado and all of us in the city of Boulder received far more local and national press coverage concerning the police-state they created to deny the free speech and peaceful assembly of students and others than had ever resulted before due to the 4/20 gathering.

Considering that “negative publicity” was one of the justifications given by administrators for their decision to basically suspend the First Amendment, I’d say their plan backfired.

This isn’t a small thing. These people closed our publicly funded campus to all outsiders for the first time ever. Not even during the impassioned protests of the Vietnam War — when the very real possibility of violence existed — did anyone dare commit such an act to throttle First Amendment rights. And if you don’t think that this year’s 4/20 event qualified as a protest worthy of First Amendment protection, then I would ask that you look more closely at these photos. In its effort to quash what it perceived as nothing more than a 4/20 party, those who run the campus succeeded only in transforming the event into a far more powerful political rally.

At this year’s 4/20 protest, I had the opportunity to observe as a passionate young man explained to the police at Norlin Quad why he wanted them to step aside and let him and his fellow protestors pass. He said it was his school, and he believed that he had the Constitutional right to express his views on the grass of his own university where he paid tuition. When his request was rejected, he then turned to the crowd and encouraged them to remain peaceable as he led them in political chants.

It was at that point that the policeman a few inches in front of me leaned over to another officer and quietly inferred that he thought he should arrest the young man for inciting a riot. Fortunately, before such a foolish act on the part of the police could occur — I say foolish because this is exactly how actual riots explode from otherwise peaceful gatherings — that same young man encouraged the crowd to peacefully leave the area in order to avoid conflict. He then led the crowd toward a new, police-free piece of grass at the quad south of the Duane physics building, where this year’s 4/20 protest finally took place despite all the planning, military-like force and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by CU in its failed effort to stop it.

Did I mention that this guy the cops wanted to arrest — the same young fellow who, from where I was standing, should be credited with having prevented what could have become an ugly scene — doesn’t even smoke pot? Not that it matters when it comes to the First Amendment.

Not only were non-students denied the right to be on this public campus regardless of the circumstances for their being there, working journalists, including myself, who were unwilling to apply for a special bright orange press pass the size of a bullet proof vest and issued by the very administration on whose actions we were reporting, were also told to stay away and that we could not enter the campus. For the 25 years I have been working as a journalist, a valid Colorado press pass was always good enough for a breaking story on public property.

I realize that had I been willing to request a special media pass from the powers that be at CU, it would have been granted to me, but that isn’t the issue. What if I had been legally on campus because I was wearing my administration-issued, orange-jump-suit of a pass? Would those same two cops have had that same candid conversation about arresting that young man right under my nose if they knew I was a reporter? I don’t think so. And that’s the point. This administration believes it has the right to control the message, even the message of the media.

We need to ask ourselves, is this shred-the-First-Amendment lesson really what we want University students to be learning? Because it is what they are learning. Can you imagine another time in CU’s storied history — this is, after all, the university built around the Dalton Trumbo free speech fountain — that the student government would have been willing to spend $150,000 to try and dissuade their fellow students from gathering together peaceably and speaking their minds on an important issue of the day? And worse, while spending that money in part to create a Wyclef Jean concert to lure students away from the protest, members of student government actually wrote into the performer’s contract which words he was forbidden to say, another first for CU, contractual censorship of a performing artist. What’s next, firing professors for using certain words or expressing certain political views? Oh, wait, CU already has a reputation for doing that. Never mind.


As first reported by Boulder Weekly, according to the contract Wyclef Jean was forbidden to speak of marijuana or 4/20. To do so, per the contract, would constitute a breach, which presumably would cost the integrity-challenged singer his 80-grand payday. In a last pathetic effort to find someone to not talk about pot with, Wyclef sent his brother to the 4/20 protest with a megaphone to try and find out why “no one was at Wyclef ’s concert.” What a waste of $150,000.

But the important question here is, where did these supposed student leaders get such a hair-brained, anti-Trumboesque idea? There’s an easy answer. These students were simply modeling the behavior of their school’s administration. And it didn’t stop there. Other equally mis-mentored students encouraged their peers who wanted to show solidarity against those who desired the right to participate in a 4/20 protest to do so by wearing suits and ties on that day. I’m not joking.

These are college students on the CU campus who believe, because they have been taught to believe, that the opposite of someone who wants to speak their mind on a political issue, is someone wearing a suit. I can only imagine that this is the result of having an institution of higher learning led by an oil man and other “businesspersons” who have made it clear that they are willing to use the threat of force to trample any and all Constitutional rights, including those possessed by tuition-paying students whose political positions and/or actions are deemed to be ill-suited to corporate fundraising.

They have created an environment in which our leaders of tomorrow believe that the censorship of those with whom they disagree is an acceptable tool of power. It should send a shiver down the spine of everyone, particularly CU alumni.

This near sacrilege that is transpiring in the very heart of our community did not rise from its McCarthy-era grave overnight. It has been a slow process that has led us back to this point where blatant suppression of our rights is not only tolerated, but even held high as a desirable aspiration for our young people.

There’s no denying it, we live in a post-9/11 world where trading our rights for the perception of safety has become commonplace. A little racial profiling, a few unwarranted wire taps here and there, a couple of snapshots of protest leaders or pesky environmentalists put into a file, just in case. It’s understandable as long as it’s for the public good, right?

There is also no denying that today’s public universities get far more of their money from corporations than from our tax dollars. This reality makes trading other people’s rights to ensure this flow of funding remains steady is paramount for those whose healthy incomes depend on it. But no one in the CU administration would ever admit as much. So the excuse given for sending a massive police force to extinguish a protest over the morality and practicality of current marijuana laws is that it is necessitated by the need to protect CU’s “reputation,” and the perceived value of the institution’s diplomas. The worst part about this invented diploma smokescreen is that some of the students, including those in campus government, have actually swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker.

The CU of today is a corporate-funded institution where those who speak their mind will not be tolerated unless their message is one acceptable to people who write big checks.

The Adrienne Andersons, Ward Churchills and Phil Mitchells are no longer protected by the higher calling of the university experience, the calling where students’ minds are opened by new ideas and their worldviews broadened by exposure to myriad points of view. CU has spit these teachers and thinkers and others like them out in recent years, all in the name of protecting CU’s reputation. But what does this even mean? What is all this business about reputations and diploma values?

Berkeley has a particular reputation, and its students are highly sought after. NYU has its reputation, and seems to be doing just fine. And yes, CU too has a particular reputation, and despite the current leadership’s statements to the contrary, it’s not one of which to be ashamed.

CU has always been viewed as a free-spirited place. It has been a university where individualism is cherished and where fun that didn’t hurt anyone is tolerated. It has been a place that historically has been willing to speak its mind on all issues of the day. CU students have at times hated war, adamantly opposed alphabet organizations like the CIA and FBI, fought against military recruiting on campus and generally shown a healthy skepticism toward politicians whose idea of progress is forcing us all back into an episode of Father Knows Best.

But above all, as symbolized by the Dalton Trumbo fountain at the center of the square that has been officially dedicated as a free-speech zone, CU has been a caldron of ideas boiling in free expression, no matter how disagreeable or far from the mainstream they may be. Right or left, pro or con, the First Amendment was at the center of CU’s reputation.

So you see, CU does have a reputation. The problem is that the school’s real image isn’t anything like this new University of Control version that the current folks in charge are rolling out with the help of a military-style security force. The truth is, in their effort to save a CU reputation that has never existed, administrators are destroying and degrading the very real CU reputation that has always made it great.

The politically active students who attended or who wanted to attend 4/20 but were threatened into submission aren’t the problem. I couldn’t help but notice that several of the students who were out in front of the protest on 4/20 were also on or near the stage during President Obama’s visit to CU this week. They are our future leaders, thank goodness.

The problem is this group of university leaders and city council (with the exception of Lisa Morzel and Macon Cowles), which voted to support this military-style action to snuff out political dissent. The problem is every member of the Boulder community who has shown themselves willing to endorse a police action against people who would peacefully assemble to express their political views. How, in the city of Boulder, can we sit passively by and watch as CU administrators use the threat of physical violence, arrest, jail time and even a student’s future ability to be employed and support a family as the weapons to stomp out the opinions of those with whom administrators disagree, or more accurately, believe will hurt the school’s bottom line.

As a matter of full disclosure, I don’t smoke pot. This isn’t some exercise in pushing my hidden personal agenda. I’m just trying to stop this train because I have lived long enough to know that the bridge ahead is out. No good can come from the current direction this university is heading. If CU administrators are willing to use this kind of money and strong-armed tactics to stop something as innocent and peaceful as 4/20, what on Earth will they do when a truly volatile issue erupts on the scene? I can only hope that they will give me their permission to report on it.