Campus free speech bills: Restrict or protect rights?

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

A pair of bills introduced in the Legislature that seek the suspension or expulsion of outspoken students are causing a stir at Michigan’s universities.

Critics say the proposed measures could hinder student activism. However, the main sponsor, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, says the “Campus Free Speech Act” ensures invited campus speakers have their voices heard.

“It makes sure they aren’t able to shout down the speaker,” he said. “Ideally, I think it would be nice to have engagement in debate if they are willing to have a civil debate on the topic. ... If that doesn’t happen, they could hold their own forum.”

The legislation would apply to Michigan’s 15 public universities and 28 community colleges. Institutions would be required to suspend for one year or expel students who have “twice been found responsible for infringing upon the expressive rights of others.”

The measures also would eliminate “free speech zones” that designate where students can engage in expressive activity on campus.

Opponents say the proposals would infringe on free speech, not protect it.

“This is a very tricky situation,” said Vikrant Garg, 21, a graduate student studying public health at the University of Michigan. “What this does is criminalize people for expressing their freedom of speech.”

Garg, a co-founder of Students4justice, a coalition for students of color, said the legislation could “drive away any kind of dissent.”

“There’s so many applications of this bill, it’s so far reaching it could apply to almost everybody,” he said. “That’s what makes it even more dangerous.”

Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said the measures are intrusive and unnecessary.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Hurley said. “The freedom of speech and expression are not an issue at Michigan’s post-secondary institutions. There have been some anecdotal incidents that you’ve probably read about that proponents would refer to. These are often incidents that are intentionally set up by individuals who are not students, not affiliated with the university.”

Fostering discussion

Colbeck pointed to the cancellation earlier this year of a planned speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter at the University of California at Berkeley. University officials said threats of violence made it impossible to guarantee security at the event.

A Philadelphia-based group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has found that Michigan’s public universities already have speech code policies that substantially restrict freedom of speech or have the ability to result in restrictions on protected expression because of their vague wording or for other reasons. The group annually rates the speech codes for the 400 of the nation’s largest universities and colleges.

FIRE found problems with protecting speech at all 15 Michigan public universities. Six universities, including the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and its Dearborn and Flint campuses as well as Wayne State, had at least one policy that substantially restricts the freedom of speech, according to FIRE.

The other nine universities, including Michigan State and Oakland universities, had policies that restricted a more limited amount of free speech or whose vague wording could easily be used to “restrict protected expression,” the nonprofit said.

Grant Strobl, a 21-year-old international studies and political science major at UM, supports the legislation, saying it would require universities to remove protesters who interfere with events.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed not only in Michigan, but across the country,” said Strobl, chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, a campus conservative group. “It’s not a perfect bill. I’m sure there will be changes. ... I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

He concluded: “It’s unfortunate that some students have the mentality that if they don’t agree with certain speech, they can shout down the speaker and silence them.”

As an example, Strobl said he saw hundreds of shouting protesters stop a debate last September at UM about whether the Black Lives Matter movement harms race relations. The event was hosted by Michigan Political Union, an independent student organization.

“I feel like a lot of what is important in the democracy was lost that day,” he said. “We weren’t able to have a discussion on relevant political issues. There’s no better place to do that than the university.”

The legislation in Michigan follows action by Republican lawmakers in several other states to crack down on protesters who disrupt speakers at post-secondary institutions.

In Wisconsin, for example, lawmakers are weighing a bill that would penalize protesters who disrupt speakers. The issue is now before the state Senate.

UM’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, wrote an editorial last month opposing Colbeck’s legislation. Officials at some state universities also have expressed reservations.

Targeted limits

Michigan State University spokesman Jason Cody said that while the school has not taken an official position on the legislation, officials are concerned about the bills and “share the some of the objections raised by MASU.”

“Here at MSU, we encourage our students and faculty members to bring in speakers and events, regardless if they are deemed controversial by some,” Cody said. “By the same token, we encourage our campus community to make their viewpoints known on issues they are passionate about. In all of that, though, we ask both sides of any issue to be respectful and follow MSU ordinances.”

Oakland University officials say campus policy has always protected the rights of student groups and outside organizations that gather in a peaceful manner.

“Our student affairs office works hand in hand with the Oakland University Police Department’s chief of police and group leaders to ensure access and safety in organizing such events,” said Nancy Schmitz, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “In addition, we always comply with all federal and state laws on the matter and will follow developments with this latest legislation being proposed.”

Free speech expert Gregory Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said he doesn’t mind the parts of the bills that reiterate the values of the First Amendment. However, he considers certain areas problematic.

“Why single out protests and demonstrations?” he said. “If I recall correctly, those terms aren’t even defined in the statute. So this bill, which is supposed to be a free-speech bill, is putting a particular kind of limit on certain kinds of free speech, so-called protests and demonstrations.”

Magarian said the legislation could be interpreted as banning all forms of protest.

“The effect of that passage would seem to be that a protest or demonstration can be shut down if it interferes with any other kind of expressive activity,” he said. “I don’t know of any kind of protest that doesn’t interfere with other kinds of expressive activity.”

Magarian said the bill’s mandatory penalties of a one-year suspension or expulsion for second-time offenders create a conflict for universities. He said he’s inclined to think it’s better for universities to figure the issue out themselves.

“One thing that might backfire about the provision is that it’s a pretty severe sanction,” he said. “The mandate of that sanction might well encourage universities in disciplinary proceedings to go easier on disruptors than they would if they had less severe penalties to dish out. ... That would cut against what this legislation is trying to do.”

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