Column: UM paper should support free speech

Grant Strobl

The Michigan Daily recently published an editorial voicing opposition to two free speech bills pending in the Michigan Senate on the grounds that hecklers should be allowed to veto speech.

The editorial not only has a perverted understanding of First Amendment jurisprudence, but also ignores the University of Michigan’s current policy.

The Michigan Daily is wrong to suggest that our Constitution does not protect the “right to listen to a speech classified as freedom of speech.” In less confusing words, students have no right to listen to speech.

This is absurd. Public university facilities are considered limited public forums, meaning they cannot discriminate based upon viewpoint. Constitutionally, administrators must provide equal access to campus facilities for all students. They have an obligation to protect the freedom of expression of speakers sponsored by student groups in university venues. When the university allows hecklers to veto speech of only one viewpoint, they are de facto suppressing speech based on content.

In fact, the University of Michigan has a policy — Standard Practice Guide 601.1 on “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression” — to protect the free speech rights of speakers and the students hosting them. That policy states, when hecklers try to subvert a speech on campus, “the effect is just as surely an attack on freedom of speech or artistic expression as the deliberate suppression or prohibition of a speaker or artist by authorities.” Hecklers subverting an event, according to existing University of Michigan policy, can also be removed.

Although some sections of Standard Practice Guide 601.1 need improvement, the policy is largely sound free speech policy.

The editorial also wrongly supports the university for allowing Black Lives Matter activists — students and outsiders alike — to subvert a Michigan Political Union debate. The university should have abided by its policy and removed the protesters who prevented the event from occurring as planned. Instead, university leaders stood silently as hundreds of protesters invaded and shut down the scheduled debate. This is why there are needed improvements to Standard Practice Guide 601.1, and why the State of Michigan needs to take further action to protect speech on campuses statewide.

The Michigan Daily ends its editorial by implying that the two Senate bills uphold free speech for speakers, but not for students. Their argument suggests that speakers exist on campus against the will of the students. This could not be further from the truth. Liberal student groups host leftist speakers without interruption, but when students hosts a conservative speaker, then it is okay to veto speech.

This mentality is antithetical to free speech and the mission of the University of Michigan. This is exactly the reason why Michigan’s legislators must act to ensure free speech for all students.

Michigan universities should be forced to remove disruptors who unduly interfere with events held by student groups, regardless of speakers’ viewpoints. When the radicals break the law, they should face the consequences. It is imperative to prevent situations in Michigan, like those at the University of California, Berkeley, where campus police have issued “stand-down” orders for protests against conservative speakers and have outright denied conservative student groups access to university venues.

Young America’s Foundation is currently suing Berkeley to secure the free speech, due process, and equal protection rights of students.

The two proposed bills, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Colbeck, will help protect students’ right to free speech and expression on campus, conservative and liberal alike. As a side benefit, if enforced, the two laws just might save taxpayers thousands of dollars in attorneys fees to defend future violations of free speech on campus.

Grant Strobl is the national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom.