An update on campus free speech in Colorado

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

An update on campus free speech in Colorado

During last year’s legislative session, Democratic and Republican legislators came together in a unanimous kumbaya moment to pass a new law expanding free speech on public university campuses— although they might have approached the issue from different perspectives. The new law abolished so-called “free speech zones” on campuses across Colorado.

From an explainer we wrote for The Colorado Independent last year about the new law:

In the past few years, college campuses have become high-profile battlegrounds over issues like race, guns, gender identity— and free speech. Around this time last year, news of a Mizzou professor trying to block student journalists from covering a student demonstration, and her subsequent firing, roiled an already busy news cycle about safe spaces on college campuses. Then, the 2016 presidential campaigns tore across the country, often using college campuses as a backdrop, and bringing with them a residual trail of controversy— and proposed laws. For instance, after the openly gay conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who once wrote for Breitbart, embarked on a tour of colleges that drew robust protests, lawmakers in Tennessee proposed a campus free speech law called the “Milo Bill.”

In Colorado, the law was initially pushed by Republicans, was amended by Democrats, and eventually signed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Although, oddly, he didn’t let the press in to watch.)

Fast forward to now, and two Republican regents of the University of Colorado system are pushing for a new free speech policy. Countering a narrative by some conservatives who perceive some left-leaning college students as being so-called “snowflakes” who need “safe spaces,” newly elected Republican regent Heidi Ganahl essentially said it’s the conservative students who are the ones who need more accommodation on campus. “I’m doing this in response to hundreds of conversations I’ve had with students over the last year who lean conservative or libertarian and just don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves,” Ganahl told The Boulder Daily Camera. “My goal is to have feisty, collaborative debate and make them feel like they’re able to speak their minds.”

More from the Camera about her proposed new policy:

An excerpt of a draft proposal of the policy reads: “Speech related to political, academic, artistic, and social concern serve vital purposes, both in society and within the university itself. Speech related to these topics is within the boundaries of free expression, even when others construe that speech as wrong or insensitive. The proper response to ideas that members of the university community find offensive or unwarranted is to challenge those ideas through the exercise of reason and debate, rather than attempt to interfere with or suppress them.” The draft goes on to say free expression doesn’t include speech that’s “a true threat, fraudulent, harassing, obscene, defamatory, or otherwise unlawful.”

According to the Camera, CU officials “couldn’t think of a speaker that had ever been cancelled due to impending controversy.” In her story for the newspaper, reporter Elizabeth Hernandez included this: “Out of 50 students randomly surveyed in CU’s University Memorial Center, two students said they’d felt censored or unable to express themselves freely on campus.” (Ed note: Hernandez is leaving the Camera for The Denver Post; The Camera needs a new higher-ed reporter and is hiring.)

Denverite launched its new membership model

In March 2016, we brought you the inside scoop that Dave Burdick left his job as deputy features editor of The Denver Post to launch a journalism site in Denver.

That enterprise, unnamed at the time, became Denverite. In May 2016, the site officially launched with the feel of a national startup as a hyperlocal for-profit test pilot for a potential string of similar sites in other cities with financial backing from a trio of investors from Business Insider.

Since then the company went through some changes; it merged with Spirited Media in March 2017, and in the meantime, its team of dedicated local journalists cranked out important news about Denver, gained an audience, and positioned the site as a potential model for the future of local news. But in November 2017 came a “shitty week“— the site suffered three layoffs that made up about a third of its newsroom. At the time, Spirited Media CEO Jim Brady told Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project the site would launch a membership model. This week, editor Burdick unveiled the perks of that program in an email to readers.

From the email:

As you probably know, 2017 was a challenging year for us. We had to get smaller and let go of some talented journalists. But we’re coming out on the other side committed to being transparent and intentional about the next phase of Denverite. We are setting out to build something sustainable and, to put it simply, we need to diversify our sources of funding. I am excited to announce the launch of Denverite’s new membership program, which will help support and sustain the work we do covering Denver. I am inviting you to become a founding member today.

Click here to see the tiers of membership and what it gets you.

In a post on Medium, Brady described the strategy as “Spirited Media 3.0,” saying what’s happening in Denver is the company’s first membership program. Spirited media also owns the millennial-focused for-profit online news sites Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Incline in Pittsburgh, which also will roll out membership models.”After three years of busting our asses and experimenting with different revenue sources, we’ve come to the conclusion that reader support is absolutely essential for our continued success,” Brady wrote. “We’re not building a paywall — we believe in open access to our site and our journalism.”

The Colorado Press Association’s conference is coming up

The state’s press group is holding its annual conference this year in Colorado Springs from April 12 to 14. The deadline to register is March 5. Scheduled speakers will include Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper (who once wanted to be a journalist), Jim Brady of Spirited Media (which owns Denverite), Jordan Wirfs-Brock of Google News Lab, and Shannon Kinney (who will talk about Facebook for media companies), among others.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages

The Greeley Tribune profiled a local known as Mr. Greeley who has dementiaThe Longmont Times-Call reported on regulation of new AirBnB-type rentalsThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a local take on the first year of the Trump presidencyThe Steamboat Pilot profiled three locals who beat addictionThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered local flood-damage repairsThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on how a local hospital is implementing the state’s new aid-in-dying lawSummit Daily fronted a new rival to the EPIC ski passThe Denver Post covered the latest in its city’s push for an injection site initiativeThe Gazette reported on a study showing millennials— the prime age for military service— are flocking to Colorado SpringsThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins fronted a piece about Medicaid patients running into transportation problemsThe Durango Herald reported on a monument-protection bill by Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

Denver’s Jason Salzman on ‘where activism meets journalism’ 

This week’s Q-and-A in ColoradoPolitics features Jason Salzman, a Denver writer who runs the BigMedia blog and listens to conservative talk radio all day “so no one else has to.”

From the item:

There was a time when I really, truly believed that the world would be cured if everyone ate psychedelic mushrooms, but I grew up and learned you have to be smart and fight. My way of doing this has turned out to be as a progressive writer and activist. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to be a progressive journalist in Colorado, and the person most responsible for launching me into (mostly) full-time writing is former Rocky (Mountain News) Editorial Page Editor Vincent Carroll, who gave me a shot as the Rocky’s progressive media critic. He is a great editor and writer who saved me from complete humiliation numerous times and taught me how to be simultaneously sharp-edged and reasonable. In the big picture, that’s sort of what I try to do in my writing and what I try to bring to the conversation. I try to show that bloggers can be biased and still adhere to many of the old-style and reasonable standards of journalism, like correcting errors, openly acknowledging bias, writing under their own byline, sticking to the facts, allowing interviewees to add whatever they want if they feel unfairly quoted, being (relatively) polite, answering questions about their work, like I am now. And more.

He also talks about his quest to get public officials to stop spreading “fake news” on their social media accounts.

The judiciary and public records: A tale of two battleground states

What do Colorado and Virginia have in common? In one of these purple battleground states lawmakers are trying to exempt the judiciary from their state’s open records laws while in the other lawmakers are trying to subject the judiciary to them. Which is which?

From The Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Although the judiciary has not provided any example of how its current legal protections are insufficient, the Virginia Senate will be voting this week on a bill that would exempt the entire judicial branch from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Well then. We’ve got our answer. The story, by reporter Patrick Wilson, says the Virginia bill doesn’t have to do with court case records, which are public, “but it would affect records about contracts, technology systems, criminal justice reforms or things taxpayers might be interested in, like office expenditures.”

In other words, it would be kind of like Colorado. Our state received an ‘F’ grade in the access to information category of the 2015 State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity (Disclosure: I researched and wrote the report) in part because of a “huge, gaping hole” in the Colorado Open Records Act, the state’s version of the FOIA.

From that report:

Colorado’s judicial branch is exempt from some aspects of the Colorado Open Records Act, based on a 2012 ruling by the state Court of Appeals that said the Colorado Supreme Court had decided that was the case in 1999. “There’s a huge, gaping hole right now,” says Steve Zansberg, a media attorney in Denver who represents newspapers and broadcasters. “One of the three branches of government is not subject to our open records act by its own ruling.” This has stopped a background information company from getting certain records from Colorado’s judiciary, and blocked Denver’s NBC affiliate News9 from being able to find out how much taxpayer money a public defender’s office was spending on death penalty cases. The public defender’s office cited case law in denying the TV station open records requests.

Now, for the third time, one Colorado lawmaker, Republican Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park, is pushing a bill that would make “the administrative and budget records of the judicial department subject to CORA.”

From Jeffery Roberts, director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition:

“I just think that co-equal branches of government should be held to the same standards as much as possible,” Lawrence told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. It makes people “uncomfortable,” she said, to hear that the judiciary is not bound by the same public records law as Colorado’s legislative and executive branches.

Lawrence, who is a candidate for state treasurer this year, won’t be able to try a fourth time with this proposed law if it fails, Roberts points out. “We’ll see if anybody else takes up the transparency-in-government, tilting-at-windmills job,” she told him— a particularly sad commentary.

The Colorado Independent is going to the State Supreme Court over those court files

Five newsletters ago we learned how The Colorado Independent is fighting in court to try and pry loose records about prosecutorial misconduct in a death penalty case against a man convicted of murdering a state senator’s son.

The quick background: A judge in the case against Sir Mario Owens found instances where “prosecutors withheld some evidence that could have been favorable to Owens’ side.” But documents in the case are under seal. The Colorado Independent thinks the public should know what led a judge to rule prosecutors improperly withheld evidence in the case. The prosecutors, led by 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who is running for attorney general as a Republican, don’t think the public should know. And, apparently, neither does Retired Senior District Court Judge Christopher Munch who “gave no legal reasoning for his decision to keep sealing those documents.” So, The Colorado Independent filed an emergency petition to the State Supreme Court to lift the seal or compel a judge to do so.

“For the public, Coloradans’ ability to hold prosecutors and judges to account pivots on the success of The Independent’s petition,” Indy editor Susan Greene wrote this week.

More from her column:

We’re asking the Supreme Court to “clarify for trial judges throughout Colorado” that the public has a presumed right of access to documents on file in Colorado criminal cases, including documents related to prosecutorial misconduct. We’re also asking justices to rule that the court records may not be sealed unless the government proves that secrecy is somehow necessary to protect an interest “of the highest order” and that it there are no “less restrictive” alternatives to do so.

Update: On Thursday, the state Supreme Court granted The Colorado Independent’s emergency petition. The full court ordered Judge Christopher Munch to show legal cause for his decision by March 12. The Independent will have 30 days to legally respond.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Benjamin Balázs for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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