The Sam Cary Bar Association (“SCBA”) and the Colorado Association of Black Women Attorneys ("CO-ABWA"), expresses its deep concern and condemnation with the University of Denver’s recently approved and hosted speaker, Ilya Shapiro. SCBA and CO-ABWA also expresses concern over the events leading up to and following Mr. Shapiro’s speaking engagement. The commonality with all of these events is the University’s inability to acknowledge clear hate speech, listen to its students from marginalized backgrounds when they expressed legitimate concerns, and understand how freedom of speech works and how it plays a role in the education of our future community leaders. We call on the University to take proactive steps to assess the needs of the students of color and from other marginalized communities, the impact hate speech has on them and their ability to learn and grow, and ways in which the university can support its entire student community.
First, in the Chancellor’s Statement on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, it was stated that “[i]n an organization so reliant on its people, creating a diverse and inclusive community isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s critical to the successful implementation of our mission.” We agree with the Chancellor’s statement. The creation of a diverse and inclusive community necessarily rests on many pillars, one being safety. Safety is of particular concern for students, faculty of color, and those from other marginalized communities, because truly feeling and being safe is not a common occurrence for those communities and we know that based on the Chancellor’s statement plus the DEI action plan that was put into place by the University back in 2020. Speakers like Mr. Shapiro erode that safety and indicate to those in marginalized communities that the University does not understand or value that foundational need for safety. In the wake of this misstep, the University must now reach out to its students to more fully understand what needs to be done to heal this breach in trust and find ways in which the University can once again create a safe environment, which is foundation for an inclusive community.
Next, these recent events call into question the University’s understanding of marginalized communities and their history. Instead of creating a robust forum for debate and learning, the University instead triggered a cascade of trauma-induced reactions from many of those various communities. Mr. Shapiro’s speech and platform is remarkably similar to generations of white supremacists who routinely champion anti-Black, anti-color, anti-women, anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric. The fetishization and complicity of that rhetoric that has been growing across the country has resulted in dangerous attacks on those in marginalized communities. Indeed, such results are not absent from today’s society in which we see not only a continuation of systemic and institutional othering, we see renewed and expansive vigor and passion for new forms of marginalization. In addition, we also see an increase in violent attacks against people from marginalized backgrounds. If the University truly wishes to create an inclusive environment, it should not stoke the embers that cause the flames of racisms, misogyny, and homophobia.
Finally, the recent events demonstrate that the University is not listening to its students of color or its marginalized students, despite acknowledging that Black students in particular have “long asked for meaningful changes.” Students were clear with the administration – this speaker is harmful and hurtful and only causes damage. While we respect the notion of free speech and open discourse, we do not support platforming hate speech that harms marginalized communities.. We do not believe you should, either. We also believe that when students raise concerns, the answer is not to produce more security, which causes many to feel less secure, ban free speech, and limit the reactions from those present – even listing career-limiting sanctions against those who react. The net result was to make many students feel unsafe, not welcomed, and threatened by the University. Indeed, even students not from marginalized backgrounds have expressed these same concerns. Needless to say, none of these actions are consistent with an inclusive environment for all students, nor are they consistent with the goals of the DEI efforts expressed by the University. In fact, these steps are directly contradictory to those notions.
We call on the University to take meaningful and public steps to address these issues. Listen to your students of color and those from marginalized communities and believe them when they speak. Hear their concerns and why safety is important to them and why and how it runs so deep. Take time to consider the speakers you present to truly understand if they add to an academic discourse or if they add to historic hate, violence, and trauma while also bolstering white supremacy. Finally, show your students that you have erred with a public apology and demonstrate to them that they truly matter and are welcome to equally exist at this institution with dignity, by learning and growing from this negative experience and revisiting all DEI efforts. As attorneys who work and live in Colorado, many of whom work and live in the Denver metro, we see you and are watching what you do next. We are happy to be part of the solution, but you must make those first meaningful steps.
The Sam Cary Bar Association and the Colorado Association of Black Women Attorneys