Free speech in Colorado: Bus bench Jesus vs. the Bias Response Team

Carolyn Tiry


In Colorado Springs, multiple media outlets reported on a local pastor, Lawson Perdue, saying his “Jesus is Lord” advertisements on public bus stop benches might be barred because they use the word Jesus. (In my experience, these ubiquitous bus bench ads are rivaled only by ads for Wolf Tours in town).

As The Gazette reports, “he was told if the name Jesus was allowed, hate messages would have to be allowed, too.” The alt-weekly Colorado Springs Independent reported the city could face a lawsuit, and posted a comment from the public transit operator saying “a recent citizen complaint about certain advertising on bus benches has caused City Transit staff to undertake careful review of both the advertising and Transit’s current advertising policy in relation to the requirements of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause.” Fox News has already gotten ahold of the story.

The Gazette story contained this memorable line (emphasis mine): “Perdue said his church has ads on 20 benches with the ‘Jesus is Lord’ campaign on them. He said he planned to renew his contract with Jesus in future advertisements as well.” (I’d like to see the signature on that contract!)

The city later said while an attorney is reviewing policy and “Mountain Metro Transit recognizes that it acted hastily in asking Pastor Perdue to change his messaging,” no action will be taken until after the review.

Elsewhere in the state, officials at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley “have spent the past year regulating speech on their campus in a way First Amendment advocates say should raise serious questions,” the local paper there reported. According to The Greeley Tribune, UNC administrators created something two years ago called the “UNC Bias Response Team,” which was charged with responding to complaints of behavior motivated by bias.

From The Tribune:

During the 2015-16 academic year, UNC officials responded to dozens of complaints — most generated by students — regarding everything from professors’ in-class assignments to students’ strongly stated political opinions to cooking competitions that caused problems for students with eating disorders. Documents The Tribune obtained from Heat Street, a New York-based, libertarian-leaning online publication, show a UNC process that mirrors police reports, with a reporting party, an investigative narrative and consequences determined.

The college denies that it is infringing on First Amendment rights, the paper reports, “by punishing students or others in the campus community for speech. They said then, and now, they simply seek to educate students about offensive rhetoric.”

The Tribune learned professors had been asked not to discuss or cover certain things in class (including transgender issues) and a student who was investigated for having a Confederate flag in his dorm was asked to move it away from a window.

Another round of buyouts and layoffs take a bite out of The Denver Post newsroom

Last week I wrote about Denver Post journalists rallying outside their office building against their hedge fund owner. “We are here today to collectively ask The Post’s parent company— DFM and Alden Global Capital — to accept the number of buyouts and not seek further job reductions through layoffs,” said a newsroom union leader. This week, thanks to the Denver alt-weekly Westword, we know which journalists accepted those buyouts.

From Westword’s Michael Roberts:

Irony alert: The Denver Post’s internal communication about employees taking a buyout offer announced in April included a correction. The first memo, sent out yesterday evening by new Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo (she took over from Greg Moore, who resigned in March), featured eighteen names. A few minutes later, managing editor Linda Shapely issued a followup noting that an additional two names had been omitted “because of an editor’s error.” That makes twenty editorial types who accepted the buyout — six short of the announced goal, 26.

A fear of some I spoke with at the June 17 rally was if the Post didn’t hit its target of 26 buyouts then layoffs might be imminent. This week those fears were realized. “[T]he Post has announced its intention to lay off three members of its newsroom by July 8,” the Denver Newspaper Guild told Westword.

Guild administrative officer Tony Mulligan had this to say about it:

“They’re diminishing the ability of the paper to serve the community” … “When they cut staff, it makes it more difficult to report the important stories that need coverage. The daily paper is the go-to outlet for all the things that need to be covered, and even though there are some great online news organizations popping up, their capacity is small. So as we lose newspaper staff, we lose the ability to have professional journalists cover our community.”

Westword has a list of the 20 Posters who took a buyout, which includes Vincent Carroll, the paper’s editorial page editor. In February I wrote for CJR’s United States Project about how shrinking staff at the Post meant the paper is cutting back on editorials — and at the time, Carroll was essentially the lone editorial writer left at the Post. According to an announcement e-mail to staff from Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, politics editor Chunk Plunkett will take over for Carroll at the op-ed page on July 2, where he had been prior to taking the helm of the politics desk in 2011.

In 2015, The Post slashed 20 jobs from the newsroom. This latest buzz saw means the newsroom has been cut by about one third in the past year alone.

Some more national ink for local news startup Denverite (hashtag Burdickwatch)

Speaking of online news organizations popping up, around this time last month I wrote about the launch of Denverite, a local news startup backed by three investors of Business Insider and run by former Denver Post deputy features editor Dave Burdick. This month The Associated Press is out with a New York datelined piece about “a handful of new startups [that] are tackling a thorny problem that AOL couldn’t solve with zillions of dollars: How to cover local news in different cities without going broke.”

One of them is Denverite, which got top billing in the piece with a staff photo. From the AP:

Some see a news hole left behind by the shrinking newsrooms of traditional city newspapers and alt-weeklies. Others want to woo smartphone-addicted millennial readers. They’re using newsletters and social media like Instagram to build an audience for their sites.

The rest of it covers similar ground as my CJR piece, noting recent developments of other for-profit local news sites from Oklahoma to North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

As for Denverite’s editorial goals, “The site aims to cover development and how Denver is changing as a city,” says Burdick in the AP.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado this weekend

Did you watch an all-day marathon of Game of Thrones to prep for the season finale and neglect to read what made the front pages of Colorado’s largest newspapers this Sunday? I’ve got you covered.

The Greeley Tribune ran a front page story about the UNC free speech controversy. The Loveland Reporter-Herald had a story about a farming retreat program for addicts and homeless men. “Survey: Youth Pot Use Not Growing” was on the front page of The Pueblo ChieftainThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a piece about the potential for energy extraction in Northwest Colorado. Steamboat Today put plans for a new 15,000 square foot sports recreational lodge on its cover. The Boulder Daily Camera looked at the history of rock concerts at Folsom Field. Vail Daily reported on an evolving lodging scene. The Fort Collins Coloradoan had the story of a local same-sex female couple one year after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage. The Colorado Springs Gazette previewed a closely-watched GOP primary for Congress. The Aspen Times had Diana Ross on the front page (she’s performing at Jazz Aspen). A special investigation in The Denver Post exposed Colorado as one of six states that don’t require background checks for nurses. Durango pride was “on display in rainbow colors” on this Sunday’s front page of The Herald.

A tribute to journalists who ‘refuse to take the same non-answer for an answer’

Progressive Colorado consultant Jason Salzman, who runs a blog called BigMedia, has put together a video of Colorado journalists grilling politicians who refuse to answer questions with answers that pertain to those questions. This year’s “strange” U.S. Senate primary gave him more material. Watch it here. “Journalists take a lot of hits these days, but we’re all glad they’re out there asking questions,” he writes.

A libertarian think tank investigative reporter in Colorado is at it again

Last fall I wrote about writer Todd Shepherd, who works at the libertarian Independence Institute, keeping the MSM on its toes with a fact-check of a 9News fact-checking segment. (The TV station issued a correction and apology on a “Truth Test” segment Shepherd skewered.) This week Shepherd was at it again, writing for his ideologically oriented CompleteColorado. Like the last time, this TV report has to do with questions about conservative members of a local school board and that board’s policies. Read Shepherd’s piece taking issue with a KGMH report about whether a school board policy exists or not.

Now for some news on the local media front from CJR’s United States Project

My colleague Anna Clark, who is writing a book about the Flint water crisis, explains how that crisis gave a boost to public records laws reform in Michigan. Erica Berry writes about how a big investigation of slaughterhouse safety highlights the promise of media partnerships. Deron Lee reports on the “tough environment” for family-owned newspapers as two are sold in Kansas. CJR’s press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters explains how an Ohio judge’s ruling threatens journalists’ ability to cover the court system. And I wrote about a well-traveled local muckraking South Carolina reporter going out on his own.

*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 credit: Carolyn Tiry via Creative Commons on Flickr]