Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Letter to CU

I sent this to CU president Bruce Benson, Chancellor Phil DiStefano, and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Julie Wong:

I am a Denver blogger who has followed the Ward Churchill controversy from its beginning in early 2005. I've been present at every significant event put on by Churchill's supporters at CU, except for the rogue, non-credit "classes" he held on campus for a brief period.

At every event (except one outdoor rally), Churchill's supporters have sought to shut down recording and/or filming by those they deem enemies.

The relevant passages at the CU policy page read:
V. Open Meetings

Those who qualify to schedule the use of University facilities may set their own policies concerning opening or closing their scheduled activity to the public and news media, and such policies shall be stated at the time of scheduling. If such scheduled activities are closed to the public, they may be open or closed to the news media at the discretion of the sponsoring user. If such scheduled activities are open to the public, they are open to the news media. Unobtrusive use of still and motion picture cameras and recording devices is permitted during any open meeting. The presiding officer shall be the judge of whether such use is obtrusive and may, at his/her discretion, request persons to stop using their cameras or recording devices in a fashion which he/she deems to be obtrusive.
That last sentence is a prescription for abuse. If the presiding officer can decide what's "obtrusive," s/he can shut down anyone s/he wants to.

When an entertainer(s) and/or performing artist(s) or an agent thereof requests that a contract for performance preclude the use of still or motion picture cameras or recording devices because of third-party obligations, including union regulations or publishers' rights and/or interests, or performance or copyright restrictions, the University and/or the sponsoring user may so contract and must limit such uses during a performance. However, the University of Colorado, Boulder, Office of Public Relations may record and photograph entertainers, after contract negotiations, for internal, educational, and information use (i.e., archives) only, thus not violating the performer's right to third-party obligations.
VI. Protection of Free Speech

The University is committed to protecting the free speech rights of its students, faculty and staff. Assuming responsibility for the use of University facilities includes protecting the rights of speakers to be heard, the rights of the University community to hear speakers, and the reputation of the University as a center for free speech and scholarly inquiry. On certain occasions, the Committee on the Use of University Facilities or its chairperson may request the Executive Committee of the Boulder Faculty Assembly to appoint a chairperson to preside at the event and he/she will be empowered to take necessary steps to see that participants are treated with courtesy and to ensure the reasonable conduct of the event.

I apologize for the length of the following timeline, but context, as usual, is essential.

On March 6, 2007, I attended a "teach-in" on the Churchill case in a CU classroom. Also attending was a videographer named Peter Fotopoulos. Although no media policy had been announced, including on the flyer for the event, and Fotopoulos was being in no way "obtrusive" (he had his camera set up in the back of the room aimed at the podium, while he sat silently in a seat next to it) then-CU ethnic studies instructor Ben Whitmer called the police, who ordered Fotopoulos to shut his camera down (which he had already done, knowing the cops were on the way).

On April 12, 2007, a "colloquium" on the Churchill case featuring Cornell professor Eric Cheyfitz was held in another CU classroom. A fellow blogger and I attended, with audio recorders. Again, even though no prior media policy had been announced, and we were utterly unobtrusive, we were ordered to shut down our recorders by student "security," who, when we refused to take our equipment back to the car, called the police. The cops told us to leave (though they claimed in their report that we left "voluntarily"). The students also claimed that Prof. Cheyfitz personally had requested that no recording be allowed, except by those whom he, apparently, chose to recognize as legitimate media (a single story eventually appeared, in the Post).

Was he "presiding officer?" Who knows?

On April 28, 2007, a "National Emergency Forum" in support of Churchill was held in Muenzinger Auditorium, and, once again, at the "time of scheduling," no media policy was announced. This time, however, the organizers managed, apparently the night before the event, to put out a flyer (never posted on the internet) announcing a media policy that prohibited recording by anyone but members of "recognized" media, none of whom, apparently, attended, since no stories subsequently appeared in any local media.

Finally, on October 2, 2007, Boulder Daily Camera reporter Heath Urie was physically prevented by then-CU instructor Ben Whitmer and CU student Josh Dillabaugh from attending one of the classes Churchill held at CU after his firing. Urie filed assault charges (later dropped). Again, no media policy had been announced for the classes.

The point: On March 5, 2009, Bill Ayers, Derrick Jensen and Ward Churchill will speak at an event on the CU campus sponsored by several student groups. One of the sponsoring groups is Students for TRUE Academic Freedom, which also sponsored, under a slightly different name ("and Faculty"), the last two events described above.

Here's the flyer for the upcoming event. Notice that, once again, no media policy is announced. None of the sponsoring organizations has anything on their respective websites, either.

No media policy announced at the "time of scheduling," and apparently no "contractual obligations" potentially violated (of course, you may know something I don't), which leaves only the "presiding officer's" absolute discretion to define "obtrusive."

Given, however, the spirit of the University of Colorado's policy, if not perhaps its letter (which, at least in who gets to say what is "obtrusive," is ridiculous), CU should make it clear that since event organizers (once again) failed to follow CU policy on when event media policy "shall" be announced, and in the absence of "contract obligations," "unobtrusive" recording will be allowed (at least audio) at the March 5 event. Alternatively, CU should state clearly their reasons for allowing veteran dissent-crushers to once again try to "control the message."

At the very least, the executive committee of the faculty assembly should indeed appoint "a chairperson to preside at the event and he/she will be empowered to take necessary steps to see that participants are treated with courtesy and to ensure the reasonable conduct of the event."

If CU truly is "committed to protecting free speech rights," it should include in those rights the right of those who disagree with particular speakers at public events to record (unobtrusively) those speakers in order to have an accurate record, which they are then free to use in any non-libelous way they see fit.

Thank you for your attention. I posted this e-mail on my blog, and will likewise post any replies.

John G. Martin

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