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Proposed legislation by a GOP lawmaker is setting up a fight between Michigan universities and the Legislature about whether lawmakers can dictate speech policies on state college campuses. 

The bills introduced by Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, would create two separate acts to specify when college campuses can restrict speech and require the campuses to develop policies and educational materials to inform students and faculty of their rights to free expression.

The bills sparked heated debate Thursday among Republican and Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee who traded barbs about liberal bias on college campuses, safety concerns, and worries about hate speech. 

“Hate speech, be it liberal or conservative, is what gets people hyped up; violent actions occur and it should not be acceptable,” said Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit. “I don’t want a white hood coming on anyone’s campus just because we have free speech.”

Free speech on college campuses is often curbed by accusations of hate speech or the “hecklers veto” from individuals who threaten violent protest if a speaker’s message is disagreeable, said Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. 

“Liberals shut conservatives down from speaking,” LaFave said. “That is the liberal bias we see on campus.”

Representatives from the Michigan Association of State Universities and Michigan Community College Association told lawmakers that they oppose the proposals.

The bills come in the wake of controversial decisions and lawsuits on Michigan college campuses regarding which speakers and which types of speech activity are allowed on campus. It also follows President Donald Trump's signing last month of an executive order requiring U.S. colleges to protect free speech on their campuses or risk losing federal research funding.

“Colleges and universities, not only in Michigan, but especially in Michigan, just can’t seem to get these speech policies correct,” Reilly told lawmakers. 

House fiscal and legislative analysis has raised doubts about how effective the bills would be since the state Constitution grants state universities autonomy from state government.

“It is unclear if the universities would have to adopt the changes described in the bill,” House analysts wrote Wednesday. 

But Reilly argued that the constitutional autonomy does not extend beyond business and academic affairs.  

“Frankly, this is an issue we are willing to take to court if we need to,” Reilly said. “We think we have a very strong argument here.”

Representatives from the Michigan Association of State Universities and Michigan Community College Association agreed with the House analysis and said there was no version of the bill they could envision supporting. 

While there are exceptions to universities’ constitutional autonomy, the policy the legislation addresses “is clearly at the heart of academic enterprise,” said Bob Murphy of the Michigan Association of State Universities. 

The proposed Campus Free Speech Act would allow campuses to restrict expressive conduct only if there is a compelling government interest, if there are alternative opportunities to be expressive and if the campus still “allows for spontaneous assembly and distribution of literature.” The bill would ban the quarantining of activity to free speech zones.

People who felt their rights were violated could file a lawsuit within a year of the incident for an injunction, legal costs and damages up to $1,000.

The proposed College Campus Intellectual and Expressive Freedom Act would require institutions to develop policy and educational materials regarding free expression. The policy would include allowances for students and faculty to “discuss anything,” assemble, protest and bring in any speaker they want with exceptions for some time, manner, and place considerations and so long as protests don’t “substantially and materially infringe on the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”

The proposed law also would require universities to consider all public areas of campus to be considered public forums, instead of limiting the forum to free speech zones. The act would ensure “belief-based student organizations” would not be denied privileges available to other student organizations. The legislation would require institutions to stay neutral “on the public policy controversies of the day” if the issues don’t affect the institution. 

After lawmaker questioning, neither college association could say how many free speech lawsuits Michigan higher education institutions had dealt with in recent years, nor what their success rate was. Committee Chairman Rep. Matt Hall, R-Emmett Township, asked them to retrieve that data for future consideration. 

Kellogg Community College's president was among those who testified Thursday in opposition to the legislation, noting that after a 2016 incident the college changed its policies without an ultimatum from the Legislature. 

“We have changed,” said Kellogg Community College President Mark O’Connell. “We have fixed our policy using our local governance through our board of trustees.”

The 2016 incident at Kellogg involved three people who were arrested while distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside a campus building. The individuals were not students and were arrested under solicitation rules that required them to get the college’s approval before distributing them, the college clarified Thursday.

Reilly later maintained the individuals arrested were students at the time.

The college reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the trio after being sued by Young Americans for Liberty. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661
 

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