Column: Securing free speech at UM

Grant Strobl

The Central Student Government at the University of Michigan blocked a proposal last month to strengthen free speech protections on campus. Some representatives who voted against the measure claimed that protecting free speech would “[delegitimize] minorities on campus” and put “people at risk.” Unlike what the naïve student government suggests, free speech is at risk.

The University of Michigan is a repeat offender when it comes to limiting free speech. Early last year, the university stood silently by as hundreds of Black Lives Matters protesters invaded and shut down a planned debate held by the Michigan Political Union. The topic? Whether the Black Lives Matter movement is harmful to race relations in the United States. Pretty ironic. This is not the only time administrators caved to the demands of a small faction of campus leftists. Administrators also caused a national uproar by canceling a campus screening of the movie “American Sniper” after a handful of students claimed the award-winning film would be offensive.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. The student government for the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA), released a statement in support of free speech. Their statement recognizes that free speech is in “danger” on college campuses nationwide, calls for reforms to ensure that free speech is protected, and urges that the University as a whole adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression as its official policy.

At least one college within the university gets it.

After this LSA student government statement, both President Schlissel and LSA Dean Andrew Martin sent emails in support of free speech to leadership in the LSA student government. They cited Standard Practice Guide 601.1 on “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression” as being “entirely consistent” with the Chicago Principles of Free Expression. However, each campus leader pointed out areas of improvement at Michigan, namely “figuring out when and how to act — and when not to act,” as Dean Martin put it.

While Standard Practice Guide 601.1 is sound policy on free speech, some sections need improvement.

Guideline 5 gives university administrators too much room for interpretation to let protesters/hecklers subvert an event. More precise language is needed to prevent situations like that of the Michigan Political Union debate where hecklers subverted the event and prevented the speakers from making their remarks.

Similarly, Guideline 8 should be repaired to prevent inaction from the university. As currently worded, the guideline places the burden of stopping “undue interference” on organizers of events, typically students, and allows the university to use them as scapegoats for university inaction. This should be changed to require the university to take action and prevent hecklers.

Beyond specific free speech policies, the university needs to also look at modifying policies for programs that have a severe chilling effect on free speech. For example, a “bias incident” according to the program's FAQ’s, is completely ambiguous and includes protected speech. It would also be wise for the university even to take a step further and issue a statement reaffirming its commitment to free speech as recommended by the LSA Student Government.

These small policy improvements would affirm the university’s commitment to free speech.

Grant Strobl is national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom and a senior at the University of Michigan.