Opinion: Free speech on campus a job for Michigan universities, not Legislature

Daniel Hurley
University of Michigan graduate Audra Christophersen (center) shouts, "Go blue."

Let’s be clear: There are no public institutions in Michigan that embrace free speech more than our state’s public universities.

Certainly not our Legislature — where members have been censored for using medical terms about human anatomy and where rules of decorum prevent even using fellow lawmakers’ names in certain debates.

Fundamental to the mission of all higher education institutions is a commitment to open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. Michigan State University’s “statement on free speech,” for instance, is not unlike those put forth by other Michigan public universities:

"The basic purposes of the university are the advancement, dissemination and application of knowledge. The most basic condition for the achievement of these purposes is freedom of expression and communication." 

Contrary to some lawmakers’ assertions, Michigan’s public universities have no “free speech zones,” or places where someone must to go to express an opinion. Expressive activity can and does happen in every corner of our campuses. But even at a public university, reasonable guidelines on time, place and manner of demonstrations guarantee the access, security and safety of all who attend and visit the institution.

Michigan’s public universities have a long track record of encouraging open, honest and civil discussions of many viewpoints. Consider that respected conservative George Will in recent years was a commencement speaker at Michigan State University, where he received an honorary degree, and that right-wing firebrand Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of Michigan in March. He was followed by past Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton this fall. Across the state’s public universities, students can gather within groups as diverse as Young Americans for Freedom, the National Rifle Association and the Young Democratic Socialists of America. Speech from across the ideological spectrum is welcomed at our public university campuses.

Balancing these tensions — access versus security — is a matter for careful on-the-ground event management, not legislation. Campus officials need to ensure that demonstrations of free speech and expression do not impede the learning taking place in classrooms or libraries, scientific research taking place in laboratories, or the delivery of health services in medical facilities. Universities have a responsibility to ensure residence halls are safe and not a gathering place for unknown actors.

While some lawmakers place attention on free speech issues on campus, not so much is paid to regulation of speech at the Michigan Capitol. One would think that a speaker truly interested in getting his or her voice heard by the largest number of people would consider using the Capitol, or the local city hall, the seat of government, as a pedestal for their concerns.

Someone looking to speak at the Michigan State Capitol will be faced with a 37-page booklet, “Procedures for the Use of the Public Areas of the Michigan State Capitol.”

It lays out the process to get permits from authorities and sets up spaces where speakers are encouraged to locate. It states clearly that “No public event or exhibit may discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, age, or disability.” It says, “Public use of the Capitol shall not interfere with any legislative session or the conduct of public business by agencies of the State which normally occupy and use the Capitol and shall not affect the safety and well-being of the individuals conducting the work of these agencies.”

Limits on the use of sound amplification equipment as well as the types of materials permitted in demonstrations are among many restrictions.

It’s hard to understand why these regulations, approved by lawmakers to allow speech while maintaining access and security at our seat of state government, should be acceptable, but that less intrusive guidelines should not be permitted at public universities.

Let’s recognize the reasonable considerations for encouraging free speech while considering public order at universities for what they are: an attempt to maintain safety and civility on our campuses while exposing students to the widest possible variety of thought. We don’t need lawmakers micromanaging university campuses that have a track record of free speech second to none in Michigan. 

Daniel Hurley is CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities.