When you think of challenges facing free speech at universities, high-profile events likely come to mind: right-wing personalities Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro at Berkeley, scholar Charles Murray at Middlebury College or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wherever she goes.
Students (and often professors) who don’t like invited guests feel they have the right to shout down these speakers — or prevent the talks from happening in the first place. Combine that with university sanctioned “free speech zones” and “safe spaces,” and it doesn’t take long to see how First Amendment rights are at risk on the quad.
As a conservative on a liberal campus, Grant Strobl, a senior at the University of Michigan and national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, knows these problems firsthand. He points to a survey that shows most students care about free speech, but they don’t know what the First Amendment actually protects. Throw in how universities coddle students (UM has a “bias incident response team,” and Berkeley has offered counseling to students offended by conservative speakers), and no wonder students are acting out.
“There seems to be confusion on what speech is protected speech, and universities are contributing to that confusion,” Strobl says. “A lot of the problem comes from political correctness.”
Free speech proponents highlight an incident at UM to justify action by state legislatures.
In September 2016, the Michigan Political Union, a nonpartisan group that hosts student debates, put forth this topic: “Black Lives Matter is harmful to racial relations in the United States.”
Controversial, sure, but a relevant subject. Yet students never got the chance to discuss it because several hundred protesters showed up and made the debate impossible.
Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, describes it for National Review Online: “Protesters jeered and hurled obscenity-laced tirades at the debaters.”
And even though UM has a policy that protests shouldn’t “unduly interfere” with speakers and their audience, it didn’t do any good — and there weren’t repercussions for protesting students. In fact, Kurtz notes a student who wrote a piece for the student paper ahead of time, making the case that a debate about Black Lives Matter was offensive and racist, received a “feminist practice” award from the school’s Women’s Studies department in April for her work on campus.
So Kurtz has joined forces with the Goldwater Institute in promoting its model campus speech legislation.
“You can’t have debates on campus with who can shout the loudest,” says Jim Manley, senior attorney with Goldwater. “The astonishing thing is just how often it happens. There is no right to shout in someone’s face with a bullhorn.”
In Michigan, Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, introduced bills earlier this year based on the framework. The legislation would force universities to document free speech incidents, and it also includes disciplinary action against students who interfere with or prevent the speech of others (due process rights of accused students are taken into account).
House members are concerned, too. Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, proposes a constitutional amendment to “clarify that public university autonomy does not preclude the Legislature from protecting free speech rights provided in the Michigan Constitution.”
Others, including the proposal from the American Legislative Exchange Council, caution that any remedies be weighted against their potential to quash or chill any student speech.
Students do themselves a disservice when they silence the open debate of ideas and shield themselves from other perspectives. But in the end, it’s up to university administrators to enforce their speech policies and make sure they aren’t inhibiting the rights of any students — even conservative ones.