Just before the Colorado Senate adjourned on April 20, Pat Steadman, a Democrat from Denver who is one of the most liberal members of the body, asked for a moment of personal privilege to speak on an issue of importance to him. He used the time to lament the fact that the campus at the University of Colorado at Boulder was closed to visitors that day for the sole purpose of stifling the 4/20 demonstration that had been planned and that a lawsuit to force CU to open the campus had been unsuccessful. When he finished, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, Republican Shawn Mitchell from Broomfield, asked to be recognized. While emphasizing that he disagreed with the protesters’ call for legalization of marijuana, Mitchell agreed with Steadman that it was a sad day in Colorado when our flagship university closed its campus to silence protesters and Colorado’s court system allowed it to happen.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us five basic freedoms. CU’s actions stomped all over three of them: freedom of assembly, petition and speech. While I don’t necessarily disagree with CU administrators’ desire to stop a mass violation of Colorado’s drug laws by students and visitors to the campus who were planning to smoke marijuana, the violation of the law, not constitutionally protected rights to assemble, petition and speak, is what should have been addressed.
The violation of our most basic rights is even more egregious given that it took place on a college campus. While our rights to express ourselves must be protected everywhere, there is no more important location to do so than in our institutions of higher education. Colleges and universities are our most important laboratories of thought for a variety of reasons. They are where trained researchers explore and analyze an infinite number of issues, and they are where our leaders of tomorrow are trained for their roles in the future. All forms of public expression and dissent should be fostered, not restricted, on college and university campuses.
If CU administrators want to stop a mass violation of drug laws next year, they should announce that both university and Boulder police will enforce laws concerning marijuana use. They should encourage students to study and understand the history of civil disobedience in our country and what actions are and are not protected. But what they should not have done in 2012, and what should never be allowed to happen again, is to close the campus to visitors for the sole purpose of violating the First Amendment rights that make the United States of America the greatest country in the history of modern civilization.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.