Macomb college denies speech rights violation

Charles E. Ramirez and Candice Williams, The Detroit News

Macomb Community College officials Friday denied a student group’s claim a school policy violates its members’ First Amendment rights.

A conservative student group, The Turning Point USA, filed a federal lawsuit earlier this week against the college challenging the school’s “Policy on Expressive Activity,” which spells out rules for marches, rallies, demonstrations, protests and leafleting.

The lawsuit stems from an April 24 incident where members of the group, including one dressed in a T rex costume, said college police told them they could not speak with other students, pass out literature or collect signatures at the school’s Clinton Township campus because they did not have prior approval from administrators.

The group said three of its members were in an open area of the campus raising awareness about the value fossil fuels provide to society.

Officials said the college does not comment on pending litigation. But a spokeswoman said Friday the group's claims are untrue.

“Information distributed about the college’s policy falsely states that college officials are allowed to deny permits for any reason, including speech content, and that expressive activity is restricted to a tiny speech zone,” Jeanne Nicol, a spokeswoman for the college, said in a statement Friday. “Both assertions are untrue.”

She also said the situation in April with the group’s members has been misrepresented.

“Per a report filed that day by Macomb College Police, students who were soliciting signatures on a petition related to fossil fuels were asked if they had received approval for their expressive activity,” her statement said. “When the students acknowledged they had not and indicated that they were unwilling to follow the process spelled out in the college’s expressive activity policy, college police took no further action, and the group continued to interact with passersby.”

Under the college’s expressive activity policy, requests to hold rallies or demonstrations must be submitted to the dean of Student and Community Services in writing at least 48 hours before the activity. The requests must contain a description of the activity and the anticipated number of participants, according to the policy.

“The purpose of these guidelines is to ensure an atmosphere conducive to learning, the reasonable conduct of public business, unobstructed access to the college for its students, faculty, employees, occupants and the public, and maintenance of the college grounds,” it says.

In addition, the dean does not take the content of the speech into consideration when reviewing the application, it says.

Turning Point USA, however, alleges the college’s policies are an “unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, discriminate against the content and viewpoint of speakers in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and fail to provide equal protection of the law.”

cramirez@detroitnews.com